TSA’s x-ray scanners: tests, lies, & radiation risks

by Deborah Newell Tornello on August 8, 2012

The New York Times has an important post in its Well section entitled X-Ray Scans at Airports Leave Lingering Worries. I strongly recommend reading the whole thing. However, reporter Roni Caryn Rabin touches on certain issues that call for more detailed analysis and discussion, which happen to be among the main purposes of this blog and its comment sections.

As one of several TSA News contributors who, barring an emergency, refuses to fly until TSA’s intrusive and unconstitutional policies are changed — or the agency itself is disbanded — I have not set foot in an airport in three years. Yet it continues to surprise me how the reports of this agency’s abuses, particularly its abuse of children and passengers with disabilities or illnesses, affect me as much as if I were actually standing in line myself, waiting to be waved into the metal-detector line or selected for the scanner, having to repeat myself several times – No, thank you, I opt out; being delayed for however many minutes or hours, then perhaps being treated respectfully, or else — as happens routinely, and as we’ve reported here more times than I can count — groped and assaulted, barked at, rendered terrified, and brought to tears by blue-uniformed people wielding outsized amounts of power and authority over my mind and body.

So it was when I read the previous post about a rape-survivor’s assault at the hands of TSA. So it was, again, when I read the introduction to the NYT post, in which a doctor, fearful for his pregnant patient, advises her to opt out of the scanner should she be told to go into it. I do something that our representatives in Congress (and millions of Americans) are consistently, incomprehensibly, unable or unwilling to do: I feel for these people.

“I had two miscarriages before this pregnancy,” Ms. Marin-Czachor, a 34-year-old mother and teacher from Green Bay, Wis., recalled, “and one of the first things my doctor said was: ‘Do not go through one of those machines. There have not been any long-term studies. I would prefer you stay away from it.’ ”

Many doctors, including my own physician and that of my father, who has battled skin cancer, are not comfortable having their patients exposed to the ionizing radiation that TSA’s backscatter (x-ray) scanners deposit on the skin. They are particularly concerned when a patient flies frequently, because radiation effects are cumulative.

Moreover, a recently published study of the machines by Marquette University — the first nongovernment-funded research of its kind — showed that while the dose one receives when going through the scanner is “lower than health standards,” the radiation nonetheless extends beyond the skin, and is deposited onto organs (note that even these results are still dependent on the limited data supplied by TSA officials, not independent data):

The study estimates the radiation exposure to 29 organs – including skin, eye lens, heart, and the brain – using complex mathematical models that more accurately represent the shape and tissue density of human bodies and organs. By comparison, previous studies funded through the Transportation Security Administration used more simplified, generic mathematical models, according to Marquette.

The Marquette study used four models: a 34-year-old male, a 26-year-old female, an 11-year-old female, and a 6-year-old male. Although radiation is deposited beyond the skin, the study concludes radiation doses in organs for all four models is below recommended standards and considerably lower than radiation levels of other x-ray procedures, such as a mammogram.

Gilat-Schmidt noted that independent research currently is based on data available from the TSA.

“Access to the machines for measurements and assessments is limited. Public disclosure of the systems specifications would enable more accurate system modeling,” Gilat-Schmidt said.

Gilat-Schmidt is Professor Taly Gilat-Schmidt of Marquette University, who has said that she wouldn’t put her kids through the scanners.

Back to the NYT article:

There are 244 full-body “backscatter” X-ray scanners in use at 36 airports in the United States. They operate almost nonstop, according to the Transportation Security Administration. [...]

Most experts agree that as long as the X-ray backscatter machines are functioning properly, they expose passengers to only extremely low doses of ionizing radiation.

But some experts are less sanguine, and questions persist about the safety of using X-ray machines on such a large scale.

And this brings me to a point I have raised repeatedly in discussions with convenience-addicted friends who’d rather take their chances with the x-ray scanners than wait for a pat-down: Are you really willing to trust an agency as inept — and as replete with criminals — as the TSA to properly maintain and calibrate a machine that isn’t subject to the same strict servicing regulations as, say, a hospital’s X-ray or mammogram machine? Particularly when you consider that medical x-ray machines are not in use “non-stop,” the way airport scanners are?

Because I am not willing to be that trusting. Nor, it seems, is the entirety of Europe. As we have reported here at TSA News and as the NYT reports:

The European Union has banned body scanners that use radiation; it is against the law in several European countries to X-ray people without a medical reason.

The machines move a narrowly focused beam of high-intensity radiation very quickly across the body, and David Brenner, director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University Medical Center, says he worries about mechanical malfunctions that could cause the beam to stop in one place for even a few seconds, resulting in greater radiation exposure.

We know that radiation — above certain levels, either concentrated or cumulatively over time — causes cancer. We also know that we are exposed to a trivial amount of radiation simply by being outdoors in the sunlight, or on board a plane. And we also know that when a person breaks a bone, suffers a head injury, or reaches an age at which being screened for breast cancer is strongly advised, he or she will undergo the x-ray, CAT-scan, or mammogram because the benefit of that single exposure to radiation outweighs the risk. We know all this, and so do politicians in Washington.

But what the TSA — and by extension, Congress and the White House — fail to take into consideration is that the risk of developing cancer as a result of going through the airport scanners varies greatly from person to person. The man who flies twice a week for work; the still-growing child with a family history of blood cancers; the man with an autoimmune disease who takes medication that blocks his body’s natural TNF (tumor necrosis factor) — what about these people?

I submit that it is nothing short of a crime against the American people and the Constitution itself to require innocent people to submit to repeated doses of radiation for non-medical purposes, particularly as the cumulative and long-term effects of said radiation remain unknown.

And the offense is that much more despicable given that its only purposes are to create what experts call “Security Theater,” and to line the pockets of the contractors and their lobbyists, who have spent billions in forcing the machines on us.

The TSA refuses, to this day, both to hold a public comment period on the scanners, as it was court-ordered to do over a year ago, and to allow independent investigators to test the scanners actually in use at airports.

Previous post:

Next post: