While panic mounts worldwide about exposure to radiation coming from the Japanese power plant plumes, another more local source of radiation has some concerned: full-body airport scanners. Until recently, much of the outcry opposing these machines has centered on the peep-show factor; the scans allow TSA agents to see you naked, in the interest of security of course. Still, some experts have worried about radiation from the start, and now, during this week of paranoia about all things nuclear, the news carries a report that 500 airport scanners nationwide have just tested at 10 times the acceptable levels of radiation.1
The TSA dismisses the readings as math error. They say that the technicians normally test each machine 10 times in a row, and they simply forgot to divide the results by a factor of 10. But as a Reuters editorial points out,2 even if that turns out to be the case, it’s hardly reassuring to think that the TSA agents can’t be counted on to do simple math or submit accurate reports, given that they’re allowed to view you nude, and also, that we’re counting on them to catch terrorists. In any event, all the machines that delivered high readings are being retested.
Meanwhile, debate rages on about how safe and necessary these scanners really are.3 The journal Radiology this month carried two articles by experts regarding airport scanners– one defending them and one suggesting that we stop using them. The first report, issued before the latest debacle about the over-the-top radiation readings, comes from David A. Schauer, who directs the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements. He thinks that risks are minimal, and anyway, the benefits to society outweigh those risks. He says you’ll get exposed to far more radiation going through routine medical exams. Then again, it’s hard to imagine someone getting a medical X-ray four times a week, which could easily be the number of full body scans some frequent travelers might get — week in, week out.
On the other hand, David J. Brenner, director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University Medical Center in New York, suggests that you can’t focus only on risk to individuals. When you consider that round-trip travel subjects you to a one-in-10-million chance of getting cancer from the scans coming and going, the risk seems negligible, he says. But when you consider that the TSA can perform a billion scans annually, the picture looks different. “When the number of exposures is extraordinarily large, the argument that ‘if the risk of harm to the health of the most exposed individuals is trivial, then the total [population] risk is trivial — irrespective of how many people are exposed’ can no longer be valid,” he says, adding that, “…one might anticipate 100 cancers each year resulting from this activity.”
Dr. Brenner also questions whether the miniscule amount of radiation scanners emit actually is as minimal as stated. He points out that scientists haven’t been allowed to independently assess the actual radiation doses coming from the machines. The doses reported come from manufacturer’s reports, a fact that makes the elevated readings reported in the press seem less likely to be math error and more likely something to be concerned about. He also points out that certain people — kids, for instance, frequent travelers, and airport personnel — stand a much greater risk.
Of course, all this quibbling over teeny amounts of exposure from scanners may seem moot in the face of scary headlines about the radioactive plume from Japan descending on American shores. In reality, though, if the news reports are to be trusted, the amounts from the plume are far less than what the scanners expose you to. Then again according to some experts, the scanners expose you to far less radiation than you get on a single flight, once you pass through security and enter the friendly skies.4
In fact, if you examine the numbers, a person at ground level gets about 2.4 mSv of natural background radiation a year. That comes to .0065 a day. A single long-distance flight exposes you to the equivalent of about a week’s worth of background radiation, or .046 mSv, because you’re above the earth’s atmosphere, which normally shields you from radiation.5 The experts say that the radiation from a single scan equals what you’ll get from two minutes of flying — that’s it.
But the real point isn’t how much radiation you’re being exposed to, but why risk any exposure at all when the effectiveness of these scanners is highly questionable (in tests they miss many things such as guns and bomb components6) and good alternatives exist, such as no-radiation millimeter wave scanners, which cost about the same and are about as effective? And besides, the real problem with radiation isn’t the result of any single source of exposure, but the cumulative effect of all the sources of exposure. We’re already getting far too much exposure from excess medical testing, from ambient radiation, from little mishaps like the radiation leakage in Japan. The impact of radiation is cumulative. As Dr. John Sedat, a biochemistry and biophysics professor says in a Los Angeles Times article, “Us older people are probably only one mutation away from melanoma. I’m not going to go through these machines and basically ask for the problem. We all know the older you get the more sensitive you are to sunlight and X-rays.”
And then, there is that invasion of privacy issue — the fact that the TSA agent can be watching you at the same time he or she looks at your naked image on the screen, a preteen’s ultimate fantasy. The House Oversight Subcommittee on National Security is reviewing the situation, but in the interim, what should you do? If you must fly and can’t stand the thought of a pat-down, you’re probably not going to get cancer from getting scanned a few times. But if you fly regularly, you might want to opt for the grope. No matter what, remember that the best way to deal with all the radiation exposure you’re subjected to is to periodically cleanse using a formula that contains apple pectin and montmorrillonite clay, chelate out heavy metals (including radioactive isotopes) using a formula that contains chlorella and cilantro, and take antioxidants that contain chaparral.
1 Wilson, Simone. “Forget Japan’s Radiation Cloud — Could a TSA Scanner at LAX Give You Cancer?” 17 March 2011. The Informer. 17 March 2011. http://blogs.laweekly.com/informer/2011/03/japan_radiation_tsa_scanners_l.php.
2 Jetpacker. “Full-Body Scanners: Radioactive Death Traps or Simple Math Error?” 17 March 2011. Reuters. 17 March 2011. http://www.reuters.com/
3 McMillen, Matt. “How Risky Are Whole-Body Airport Scanners?” 16 March 2011. WebMD. 17 March 2011. http://www.webmd.com/cancer/news/20110316/how-risky-are-whole-body-airport-scanners.
4 Sohn, Emily. “Radiation Risk from Flying Dwarfs Body Scanners.” 24 November 2010. Discovery News. 18 March 2011. http://news.discovery.com/human/travel-body-scanners-radiation.html.
5 Pappalardo, Joe. “What’s the Radiation Risk from Airline Flying?” 01 November 2007. Air & Space Smithsonian. 18 March 2011. http://www.airspacemag.com/need-to-know/NEED-radiation.html.
6 Smith, Bruce. IU professor: Airport scanners have many limitations. 17 March 2011. Airport Business.<http://www.airportbusiness.com/web/online/Top-News-Headlines/IU-professor–Airport-scanners-have-many-limitations/1$43518>.