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

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.

  • That picture demonstrates so many “wrong” things. The TSA agent at the monitor should NOT have direct visual contact with the scanee. The TSA agent should also be the same gender as the scanee. Non-TSA agents should not have visibility of the images.

  • TSAisnotsecurity

    I can’t imagine anyone with half a brain would defend this joke of an agency. As embarrassing as it is to admit it, I am a former TSO. The public, including TSA News, has NO idea how really bad it is inside the TSA. I have LOTS of experience working with these machines. Unfortunately, everyone cries about it but does nothing to stop it. This includes the government. And ESPECIALLY John Mica. He only uses this issue to get his name in print. Nothing else

    • Thank you for posting! We’d love to hear more of your perspective as a former insider. There is another former TSO who blogs with us at TSA News – care to join our ranks? Please reply because I’d love to hear the rest of your story and learn about why it’s really bad inside the TSA.

      • TSAisnotsecurity


        I would be interested in your offer. Feel free to contact me at your convenience.
        Thank you.

  • AnActualFlyer

    You “have not set foot in an airport in three years”? Then please shut up. You have no idea what you’re talking about.

    • Dear AnActualFlyer, by that logic, because I’ve never been raped, I can’t have an opinion on rape. Because I’ve never been shot, 30,000 people a year don’t get shot in this country. Because I’ve never been injured in a car accident, 2.9 million people a year don’t get injured in car accidents in this country.

      And because I carry a Super Special Terrorist-Repelling Rock in my pocket, I have been successful in repelling terrorists. Just like the TSA.

    • 1amWendy

      Dear actual flyer: you may feel smug about your snide response, but you are truly arrogant if you believe that those that currently shun airports have “no idea what you’re talking about.” I can tell you absolutely, without a shred of doubt, that I (as a wearer of an artificial leg) need to stay away from the TSA as much as I need to stay away from abusive relationships. “Oh Honey, please come back. I’ll change. It’ll be different this time.” Oh, right.

      I DO have “an idea” of what I am talking about – and you, dear flyer, are totally clueless.

    • Actuall Flyer: I’m on a plane nearly every week, both domestically and internationally, and have been since about 1990. In my informed experience, Deborah is right on. Is that good enough for you?

    • 1amWendy

      Dear Willy: you may be smug and supercilious in your retort, but Dear Sir: after dozens of TSA assaults – that’s dozens – I have had enough. As a wearer of an artificial leg, i need to stay away fromt he TSA just like I ened to stay away from abusive relationships. “Oh Honey, please come back. I’ll change. It’ll be different this time.”

      Oh right.

      So, Willy, once you get abused repeatedly like I have been, then why don’t you come back and have a little chat?

    • We’re all defenders of the Constitution — or should be. If you’ve read it, and you’re voicing an opinion on it being crumpled up at the airport door, you’re extremely well-versed in this area.

    • Deborah Newell Tornello

      Others have pretty much said it all for me, but family members close to me fly a couple of times a week. And not that I need to defend myself to an anonymous Internet troll who’s too cowardly to insult people while using his or her own name, but I do actually know what I’m talking about, as anyone who’s read my work will attest. Run along, now.

    • TSAisTerrorism

      I see others have done a pretty good job already, but I’m going to go ahead and jump in the fray.

      I’m a former corporate-level airline manager who shared office space with our corporate security people, those responsible for interfacing with TSA. Through casual conversation, trips to the local Starbucks, and “accidentally” picking up work from the shared office printer I actually know a thing or 2 about what’s going on with TSA today. I know as an “actual traveler” you hold yourself in higher esteem. That’s OK, I only hope you’ll take my meager experience as being somewhat marginally informed.

      The people running the TSA are idiots. In fact, the most common descriptor used at the manager-to-manager interface level was “f***ing moron”. The people making decisions on what to do at the airport level don’t have a clue.

      It’s not those of us who care about liberty and preserving freedom while also ensuring safety that don’t know what we’re talking about. It’s the inept TSA and the people who defend them.

    • anc1entmar1ner

      I am a million mile flyer who is sitting in an airport club while writing this. Deborah is one hundred percent correct.

  • RonBonner

    Would be nice if TSA’s John Pistole would comply with United States Law and the Courts order of adhering to the Administrative Procedures Act before one more cent is spent on illegally installed TSA Strip Search Machines.

    • cjr001

      Well, that’s part of the problem with TSA: Pistole ignores US law and gives Congress the finger.

      He believes he and his agency are above US law, and nobody has the guts to bring him down.

    • cjr001

      Well, that’s part of the problem with TSA: Pistole ignores US law and gives Congress the finger.

      He believes he and his agency are above US law, and nobody has the guts to bring him down.

      • cjr001, exactly. Did you see what he said in his speech at the Aspen Institute?? Unbelievable. Arrogance on top of arrogance.

  • Drontil

    And now we learn this w/r/t the MMW with ATR:

    “TSA says that nobody views the naked scans. That’s BS. There is an office that is manned by a couple of agents who view the naked scans. The scanner itself has a cheesy cartoon style picture that is supposed to be in full view of passengers to make them feel better about going through them.”


  • Andy

    It’s OK if we all get cancer from the backscatters – we will have ObamaCare to make us better!!

    • Deborah Newell Tornello

      Andy, we try to not buy into the whole false-binary, divide-and-conquer thing which pits conservatives against liberals. The TSA commits serious crimes against the Constitution and the American people, and the violations were, and are, perpetrated by politicians from both major parties. The contributors here represent every part of the political spectrum, but we’re united in our efforts to fight the very un-American TSA and to restore sanity and legality to our national security processes.

  • While maintaining the machines is critical and can concur that TSA has no credibility and is not to be trusted in maintaining them – exposing body tissues to x-rays regularly, no matter how well maintained the machines are, and even from physicians – can lead to bad health consequences.

    • Deborah Newell Tornello

      Of course. As I wrote, we know that regular exposure to radiation leads to cancer–it’s why technicians step out of the room and into protective booths while they x-ray or CAT-scan a patient. It’s why they cover your body–the parts not being imaged–with a lead apron.

  • I can honestly say I would rather fly on a plane packed with American citizens from every nationality, ethnic and religious background, with nothing more then a metal detector then give up my rights and deal with the TSA and the Patriot act. By allowing the loss of our freedom, we have admitted defeat. I choose to not fly and have not in many years. I used my travel money to buy a nice upscale convertible and can drive to where I need to go.

  • Deborah Newell Tornello

    URGENT: We need 4689 more signatures by tomorrow! I want to urge everyone who has not already done so to sign the White House petition, which urges leadership to DEMAND that the TSA follow the law and hold the notice-and-public comment session. They were ordered to do this, promptly, by a federal appeals court over a YEAR ago. Please go here to sign, and be sure to share this with everyone you know, esp. those who travel: https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/require-transportation-security-administration-follow-law/tffCTwDd

  • Drontil

    BOS is spending over $40,000,000 to replace backscatter with MMW with ATR. Doesn’t that tell us something? BOS is also the airport that allegedly where a suspicious “cancer cluster” has appeared among screeners.


    • Yes, it does tell us something. Not only that the backscatter scanners are potentially dangerous, but that the TSA is willing to blow our money, over and over and over again, on every new untested bit of technology that comes down the pike. First it was the “puffer” machines that didn’t work and are now sitting in a warehouse, now it’s the backscatter scanners, next it’ll be something else.

      But I don’t care what kind of scanners they use, backscatter or millimeter wave. They’re all violations. They’re all violations of privacy and of our 4th Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure. And none of them obviate the gropes.

    • TSAisTerrorism

      It is in vogue to decry the backscatter machines as dangerous, but acceptable to submit to the “safer” MMW. It is important to note that MMW technology used in the way TSA is using it has never been tested on human subjects for long-term health effects. Period.

      And yes, as Lisa says, both machines are a disgusting affront to American ideals and our personal dignities.