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Full body scanners at airport pose little death risk

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TSA has deployed hundreds of full body scanners at many airports. There are two types of body scanners, one based on x-ray radiation and another on millimeter-wave.

Some are concerned about such procedures because of the risk of x-ray radiation, which can penetrate the skin and other tissues and has been recognized by the National Toxicology Program as a cancer-causing agent.

The cancer risk, according to a calculation by Peter Rez at Arizona State University, is tiny even though it is ten times higher than the government's estimate.  Radiation used for the full body imaging may cause one death from cancer in 20 million exposures.

Rez was cited as saying that the death risk is similar to that posed by a terrorist, which is one in 30 million flights.

If what Rez said is correct, then the risk of an air traveler dying from a terrorist' attack may be even smaller than the death risk from air accidents.

According to wikipedia, the risk of a passenger dying from an air accident can be around 1 for every 2,000,000,000 person-miles flown.  If it can be assumed that the average mileage for a round-trip in the U.S. is 2,000 miles, then the risk for a person to die from an air accident is 1 in 1 million round trips, which is 20 times higher than the death risk from radiation-induced cancer and 30 times higher than the death risk from a terrorist attack on a plane. 

But the estimation on the risk of a person dying from a terrorist attack on a plane is based on the historical data.  It cannot be accurately used to predict any event in the future.  If an airport is “san” security as before 9/11, then the risk for a person to die from a terrorist attack is expected to drastically increase simply, because terrorists would increase their attacks – of that, there is no doubt.

In a word, the death risk from a terrorist attack is not predictable.  One thing is certain -- if there is no secure measure at an airport, terrorists would likely kill more air travelers than radiation-induced cancers.

Of course, the estimations on  risk from radiation seems to focus on cancer only.  Radiation used at airports may potentially have some impact on other health conditions.   But no research has been reported in this area.

It is known that ionizing radiation like x-ray used in one type of full body scanners now employed at some airports can cause genomic instability.  No one has estimated the genetic impact of x-ray exposure at airports on male genitalia.  Any mutation induced by such radiation exposure can lead to health issues in future generations.

The risk, if there is any, should be tiny for most people.  But for some – such as pilots and airline attendants who travel by air almost every day, the risk of cancer and other significant health problems could be significant.

Media reports say the government is considering waiving the requirement for pilots and airline attendants to receive full body imaging.  This makes sense.  If a pilot is a terrorist, he can dive from the sky at any time.  He does not need to carry a bomb to destroy his airplane.

Jimmy Downs and editing by Rachel Stockton

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