In the airport security screening line in Kauai a few months ago, I asked an American Airlines pilot what he thought about the new X-ray scanners in front of us—the ones that are replacing metal detectors at airports around the country. He offered a startling one-word answer: “reprehensible.”
I said “Usually I opt out, because I didn’t like being X-rayed by people who are not X-ray technicians.” He replied, “If enough people opted out, they’d have to get rid of the scanners.”
Now ProPublica’s Michael Grabell reports that the cancer danger from the new scanners—which look under a traveler’s clothing—is greater than we had feared. “Research suggests that anywhere from six to 100 Americans could get cancer each year from the machines,” Grabell says. “Still, the TSA has repeatedly defined the scanners as ‘safe,’ glossing over the accepted scientific view that even low doses of ionizing radiation—the kind beamed directly at the body by the X-ray scanners—increase the risk of cancer.”
Nevertheless, millions of Americans are now being sent thru the scanners.
Official US policy used to be that X-rays were banned for anything other than medical use. The machines now found in airports, Grabell reports, were once banned from the California penal system. Then came 9/11, officials anxious about another hijacking, and corporations selling expensive products to the government—including the new scanners—that they claimed could keep America safe.
Meanwhile other countries, Grabell reports, have concluded that radiation from airport X-ray scanners poses “unacceptable health risks.”
TSA, part of Homeland Security, declares no one need fear the new machines. The scanners use a form of X-ray called “backscatter,” which, the TSA says, was “evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH).… All results confirmed that the radiation doses for the individuals being screened, operators, and bystanders were well below the dose limits specified by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).”
But the ProPublica investigation showed these reassurances to be misleading at best and in some ways dishonest. The FDA never evaluated the safety of the scanners now being installed at American airports. They were prevented from doing so, Grabell reports, because of a Catch-22: “the scanners do not have a medical purpose, so the FDA cannot subject them to the rigorous evaluation it applies to medical devices.”
The FDA does have “limited authority to oversee some non-medical products and can set mandatory safety regulations.” The scanners are classified as “electronic products,” and the FDA could evaluate them. The TSA refers to the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health. That part of the FDA “used to have 500 people examining the safety of electronic products emitting radiation,” Grabell reports; “It now has about 20 people. In fact, the FDA has not set a mandatory safety standard for an electronic product since 1985.”