TSA improperly identifies medical equipment

by Wendy Thomson on January 28, 2012

A screener mistaking an insulin pump for a handgun caused quite a ruckus in Los Angeles yesterday. Apparently a woman passenger went towards her flight before the TSA realized they didn’t know what they were seeing on her body. By the time they chased her down and figured it out, they had delayed other, unrelated passengers for up to an hour.

From the description, this woman’s viewing was via a nude-o-scope. Had it been on one of those “Gumby” look-alike screens, the confusion would have been resolved before she left the checkpoint. But no, here’s an innocent woman allowing herself to be viewed naked by some anonymous Peeping Tom in a sequestered room, and believing she was cleared for takeoff.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with medical equipment, there are so many varieties out there, covering so many different medical conditions, that there isn’t a soul on earth who can identify and explain them all. Doctors have expertise in medical equipment that touches on their specialties: the cardiologist knows about pacemakers and stents; the orthopedic surgeon can discuss different joint replacement types, manufacturers, and relative equipment strengths and weaknesses.

When it comes to permanent medical equipment, though, physicians cede that knowledge to prosthetists. Those are the people who make and fit “bionic” arms, hands, legs, feet, and breasts.

If medical doctors don’t know about all the different types of medical equipment, how in the world can screeners?

The answer is:  they can’t.

They don’t have an understanding of what they are ostensibly screening. What I know, and they don’t, is that for many different types of prosthetics and external medical devices, a true security screening would require disassembly of the medical equipment.

How does a screener know what’s inside the 1.5-inch hollow titanium pipe that serves as a tibia? Can x-rays see through metal? No. How can a screener discern between wires that power computer-assisted prosthetics and those that might do something else? They can’t. What’s inside an ostomy bag? What’s inside a prosthetic breast? Pulling it out and pawing it, as the TSA has done to several breast cancer survivors, tells them nothing.

Just another day of security theater, folks. Nothing to see here. Move along.

(Photo: Flickr/Alden Chadwick)

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