Ignore the man behind the curtain

The DHS Inspector General proudly released a statement, reported February 28th, claiming that the ionizing radiation from backscatter machines is “safe.” As justification, The DHS Attorney General states that a person would need 47 screenings a day, 365 days a year, to reach the maximum allowable for a person.

Oh, really?

Let’s look at what the DHS inspector General neglects to add.

(1) There are many sources of radiation that a person is exposed to during the day. The largest continual source is radon (54%). Cosmic, medical, internal, and terrestrial amount to another 34%. So it’s not like the sole source of radiation is a backscatter (x-ray) machine. Given the medical risks of excess radiation, stating as a defense that the machines are safe because it would take 47 trips a day through them to hit someone’s entire personal allotment of radiation is dangerously misleading. Beware those who justify outside of context.

(2) Radiation exposure is cumulative. This is tricky, because it’s not as simple as a discrete limit. Most people can tolerate a somewhat higher total amount of millerem exposure if said exposure is meted out in more frequent lower doses. That’s what the DHS is betting. However (and again), assertions of safety made out of context are dangerously misleading.

As revealed previously, Johns Hopkins (see page 4) wrote of the dangers of backscatter machine overshoot. Workers frequently within the overshoot range especially are being misled about the potential cancer and offspring birth defect risk. Of the two, the offspring birth defect risk is the more tragic. Also, an NIST report reveals that for children and infants, the current “rescreening” procedure to resolve issues without offensive pat-downs hits the wall after 3 re-screens.

(3) There is no “one-size fits-all” radiation exposure limit. Studies in T- and B-cell-deficient mice that had transplanted human tumors revealed an “unusually large” reaction to low-dose radiation. At least some of the overall population has a genetic deficiency repairing radiation damage to DNA. Young children whose cells are dividing rapidly are more susceptible. Fetal development is more susceptible at certain stages. The elderly present higher susceptibility. Those with melanin deficiency (think prematurely gray/fair skin/freckles) present higher susceptibility.

In a nutshell, the only way a person in particular can ascertain the risk associated with a trip through a backscatter machine is to understand his/her body’s ability to repair radiation damage and its cumulative exposure to radiation from other sources. There are tools that can help assess a person’s “background” exposure, but personal susceptibility is difficult to assess. That’s something I don’t accurately know about myself, and I am quite attuned to the issue.

It’s irresponsible of the DHS to purport safety based on half-truths. I’m glad that Senator Susan Collins of Maine continues to press for independent studies. The DHS wants people to blithely accept its assurances, just like the military’s claims, decades ago, of the safety of exposure to nuclear bomb tests.

Expediency and political pressures should never drive our government to harm people. Not now. Not ever.

(Photo: Flickr/Arenamontanus)