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.”
As for the TSA citing research showing the machines to be safe, Grabell points out that most of that research is unpublished; it did not appear in peer-reviewed scientific or medical journals.
The problem is that, although the scanners emit extremely low levels of ionizing radiation—the TSA is correct about that—the effects of radiation are cumulative over a lifetime. The National Academy of Sciences concluded in 2006 that even extremely low doses of radiation create a cancer risk. The medical profession has concluded that exposure should be minimized. And the European Parliament in July passed a resolution that, because of health risks, "security scanners using ionizing radiation should be prohibited."
The real key to the adoption of back-scatter technology by the TSA may be found in what Grabell calls “an intense and sophisticated lobbying campaign” by the manufacturer, Rapiscan Systems, detailed in the ProPublica report. As a result Rapiscan won a $173 million, multi-year contract for its backscatter machines.
There’s another problem: the scanners emit a tiny amount of ionizing radiation—if they are properly calibrated. But calibration has proven to be a disastrous problem even at top hospitals’ radiation treatment units. Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles, where the elite of Hollywood and Beverly Hills get their medical care, was recently found to have exposed patients to much higher doses of radiation than permitted on CT scans for eighteen months in 2006 because the machines had been set incorrectly and the technicians did not check.
Who checks the airport scanners? Before 9/11, many states took the responsibility for inspecting airline scanning machines, but TSA ended that policy when it took over. TSA employees, however, are not qualified to check the calibration of scanners and don’t do it. Only the manufacturer does that—Rapiscan—supposedly annually. But do we really want the company that profits from the products to have the sole responsibility for checking the safety of the products? (The Army Public Health Command was brought in to do independent tests—but, the ProPublic report shows, ended up becoming part of the Rapiscan-TSA PR machine.)
The TSA, Grabell reports, “plans to deploy 1,275 backscatter and millimeter-wave scanners covering more than half its security lanes by the end of 2012.” By 2014, the TSA “plans to install 1,800 covering nearly all the lanes.”
Until the TSA stops using X-rays in airport security, travelers do have an option: when you get to the front of the line, tell them, “I’d like to opt out.” Then they take you around the machine and give you the pat-down. It takes a while longer, but it doesn’t cause cancer.
UPDATE 11/3: Just one day after a ProPublica investigation revealed the potential harmful affects of X-ray body scanners, Grabell reports, the head of the TSA told a Senate committee that the agency will perform a new, independent study of the safety of the scanners.