Full Body Airport Scanners: Are They Safe?

Are full-body airport scanners safe? Traveling from San Francisco to Portland last weekend, I noticed a large whole body scanner in the middle of the SFO security area. The futuristic looking machine was in constant use with travelers entering the chamber and lifting their arms to be scanned for hidden weapons or explosives.

There are now 464 scanners located in 75 American airports. The Obama administration pledged $734 million to deploy the scanners which cost $130-170,000 each.

The goal of the TSA is for all passengers to go through the x-ray scanners. Passengers are given the choice of going through the scanners or putting up with the “enhanced pat-down” that has been in the news lately.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) feels the scanners are safe. Radiation exposure is measured in millisieverts (mSv). The TSA argues that passengers receive .1 to .5 mSv the exposure from the scanners which is less than they are likely to receive from cosmic rays when airborne.

So, is there no problem going through the scanner?

Here’s a few factors to consider:

1. X-rays do not “accumulate “ in the body, but the effects of radiation do. Radiation damages the cell by damaging DNA molecules or indirectly through free radical formation. Besides the natural background radiation we receive (about 3 mSv from the planet), on the average we receive another 2.4 mSv’s from medical procedures. No one has argued that additional radiation is good for us, even if the exposure from the scanners is very small.

2. Certain populations may be especially affected by the scanners including people with compromised immune systems, older people over 65, and children and adolescents. Pregnant women should not be scanned.

3. Passengers such as frequent travelers and airline personnel may be exposed 200 to 300 times a year, therefore significantly increasing the amount of exposure from the scanners.

4. While the risks associated with scanning just a few people is small, the risk becomes statistically much greater when the whole population is screened.

5. There does not appear to a be a program of inspection or evaluation of the machines, or a monitoring and training program for TSA employees in using the machines. Are these machines without any risk of leaking x-rays when they’re used? What are the risks to TSA employees?

6. I read about a millimeter wave scanner that does not use x-ray that has also been deployed by the TSA, but in far fewer numbers than the x-ray scanners. Why weren’t these used right from the beginning?

It seems that the amount of radiation we get from the whole body scanners is small and the amount of risk is, as the TSA says, miniscule. So I know we shouldn’t panic. It is also clear that we need to investigate further the effects of the scanners, and their monitoring, and that someone should have thought much more clearly before they spent 800 plus millions on the machines, no matter how futuristic they look.

As for me, given a choice between 10 or so seconds of radiation across my entire body or a pat-down, I definitely will take the pat-down. I just hope I’m not late for my plane.

( Dr. Arn Strasser is a chiropractor who practices in portland, oregon. For more information and appointment questions, please call 503.287.2800)

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