Scanners: Are They Putting You in Danger?
The new full-body scanners in place at 60 airports across
the country have been causing outrage in recent weeks - and that's putting it
From lawsuits being lodged against the Transportation
Security Administration due to their "intrusive" pat-down procedures,
to passengers getting into scuffles with TSA agents, these new scanners are
creating a lot of turmoil. And as the busiest travel days of the year fast
approach - with more than 1.6 million Americans expected to flock to airports
over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend - there's no telling how some passengers
are going to react.
But let's move past all of that for now and concentrate
on the safety of the backscatter X-ray scanners. What I want to know is - are
we putting our health at risk every time we walk through one these machines at
an airport? And because I'm an OB-GYN, I am also concerned about women who are
pregnant. Could these scans affect a fetus? To get a little insight into
that, we contacted Dr. David Schauer, executive director of the National
Council on Radiation Protection & Measurements (NCRP) in Bethesda, Md.
Q. How much radiation does one of these
backscatter X-ray scanners actually emit?
A. Radiation exposure is
reported in units called millirem (mrem). The effective dose per scan of 0.01
mrem is 100 times less than the annual negligible individual dose (NID) of 1
mrem recommended by the NCRP. It would therefore require at least 100 scans of
the same individual in a year to reach an amount that is considered negligible.
To put that into perspective, a typical chest X-ray is
over a thousand times greater than what a person is exposed to per scan when
they walk through an airport full-body scanner.
NOTE: Remember, radiation is all around us. We are exposed
to it every day while we walk, breathe, eat and sleep. On average in the United
States, a person is exposed to approximately 620 mrem (whole-body exposure) per
year from all sources. According to the TSA, one scan is about the same as a
person would get from flying for about three minutes in an airplane at 30,000
feet, where atmospheric radiation levels are higher than on the ground.
Q. How do these scanners differ from your
typical medical X-ray machines?
A. It's important to note that
backscatter X-ray systems are not like standard medical X-ray machines that
operate in a transmission mode. That is to say, medical X-rays are transmitted
through a patient's body. Backscatter X-rays are not transmitted through a
person's body, they are, as the name would suggest, backscattered (or
reflected) to a detector that is used to create an image. As a result of this
fundamental difference, doses from backscatter X-rays are orders of magnitude
less than doses from medical imaging with X-rays.
Q. In your opinion, do these scanners pose a
risk to a fetus? Are we potentially putting women in danger?
A. Given the low levels of
effective dose involved per scan (and the resultant low levels of equivalent
dose per scan to the embryo or fetus of a pregnant woman), no special
precautions are required for the embryo or fetus of a pregnant woman, for
infants, or for children.
Q. And finally - in general - should the
general public be concerned about these scanners?
A. It is important that all
scanned individuals be well informed about the security screening process, its
benefits and its potential risks. Information, in lay language, about the
security screening process, its benefits and its potential risks should be
provided to individuals prior to their being scanned.
In an email, Dr. David Brenner, director of the center
for radiological research at Columbia University in New York City, told us the
bigger concern is the overall population risk.
"Even though the individual risk is very small, the
impact on the population may not be small if the exposed population is large.
This is potentially the case with airport X-ray scanners. We know the
individual risk is very small, but multiply that by the number of people going
through airport security each year in the U.S. - currently about 700 million,
maybe one billion a decade from now - then we start to have a concern about the
So - what's the bottom-line here? Should we be really
"From an individual personal-risk perspective, the
risks of going through the scanner just a few times are very small, even for a
child," Brenner told us in an email. "So while the pat down is an
option, the radiation exposure is not something to be too concerned about from
the perspective of individual risk, assuming you are going through the scanners
Whatever you decide to do the next time you have to
travel - remember this - you can always opt for a good old fashioned road trip
with your family or hop on a train. You might just see the country in a whole
new way, especially since there are still a lot of unknowns about these airport
By Dr. Manny Alvarez & Karlie Pouliot
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