Are airport scanners safe for travelers?
The U.S. government has tightened airline security prior to the holiday reason by adding more full body scanners and adopting an enhanced pat-down search at more airports.
Some citizens feel uncomfortable with the practice, saying it is too invasive and violates traveler privacy. Some are concerned that airport scanners could raise risk of developing cancer, even though the government says airport scanners are safe.
According to a report by NPR, earlier this year four scientists at the University of California - San Francisco sent a letter to Presidential Science Advisor John Holdren expressing their concern that hundreds of millions of travelers every year are at higher risk of cancer, due to exposure to airport x-ray scans.
Holdren's office in turn asked the TSA and the Food and Drug Administration to respond. The FDA then posted its lengthy response on its website, which is deeply flawed, said Dr John Sedat, a UCSF professor emeritus of biochemistry and biophysics and co-author of the letter to Holdren.
Dr. David Brenner, head of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University, was not satisfied with the FDA response either, saying that no one would argue that the risk for an individual is small, but the magnitude of x-ray exposure can eventually lead to the development of a number of cancers among the population.
Brenner was cited as saying that the radiation dose per scan is about 10 times higher than the government says.
Peter Rez at Arizona State University said the x-ray dose the government estimates for the airport scanners, about 1/10,000th of a chest x-ray, is unlikely to produce any useful imaging. His calculation projected the risk at 10 times higher than the government says.
Rez was cited as saying that a person's probability of dying due to radiation from each scan is 1 in 20 million, which is negligible. However, he also said the probability that a person would to blown up in an airplane by a terrorist is even lower – about 1 in 30 million.
The x-ray radiation from airport scanners is particularly dangerous to pilots and airline attendants, who go through security gates almost daily. According to the NPR report, Rez found that the equivalent of 250 check-ins would expose a person to the annual radiation dose limit of 250 microSiverts. On the flip side, the government said such exposure would require 2,500 check-ins.
There are two types of airport scanners, one based on x-ray radiation, which poses a small cancer risk, and another based on the millimeter-wave. The x-ray scanner is blue and has two walls while the millimeter-wave machine is grayish-white and is more cylindrical.
Those who are concerned about the risk of exposure to x-ray exposure can tell the security guards "I want to opt out." Then they will do a pat down search all over all, which makes many people feel uncomfortable. The search is down to a point that the searchers touch genitals and breasts, according to media reports.
When a passenger prefers a pat-down search, he will need to be prepared for some embarrassing moments.
Cathy Bossi, a breast cancer survivor, from Charlotte was horrified when TSA agents forced her to show prosthetic breast cancer to TSA agents during an airport pat-down, according to dailymail.co.uk.
Another lady called Penny Moroney compared her experience at Lambert Airport at St. Louis to being sexually assaulted.
"Her gloved hands touched my breasts... went between them. Then she went into the top of my slacks, inserted her hands between my underwear and my skin... then put her hands up on the outside of my slacks, and patted my genitals," Ms Moroney was quoted as explaining.
A few groups of citizens are calling upon the travelers to do their best to protest the “invasive search”, as they called it.
One group designates Nov 24 as the national out-out day and asks holiday travelers to refuse to subject to the full body imaging.
Another group asks travellers to use an alternative transportation if they can and put the pressure on the airlines and let them to deal with the TSA.
According to optoutday.com, Rep. Ron Paul has introduced H.R.6416: The American Traveler Dignity Act in Congress.
A reader posted his comment on dallasnews.com as follows:
Cost of the scanner program: $6,000,000,000 over 10 years
Claimed risk of getting a cancer from X-ray scanners: 1 : 30,000,000 scans
Annual air travelers: 600 million
Ratio of X-ray scanners: half
Number of people TSA will likely give cancer: 10/year
Number of terrorists caught by TSA: 0
Getting groped by a federal agent every time you fly: priceless
Jimmy Downs and editing by Rachel Stockton