The truth about the TSA scans and your health

In two weeks’ time I will be flying from the United States to Australia – we’re moving home. If I get asked to go through the full-body scanner – whether it’s the millimetre-wave machine or the back-scatter machine – I will be opting out.

I won’t be doing this as a form of protest. I won’t be doing it because of privacy concerns, though I have sympathy for that argument, especially for people with disabilities and celebrities. I won’t be doing it because I believe them ineffective, even though many people have expressed legitimate concerns on that score also, pointing out that the scanners don’t see inside body cavities. Nor will I be doing it because of the 4th Amendment.

I’ll be opting out because of the health risks.

The TSA has repeatedly said the scanners are completely safe. Media pundits have repeatedly said they are completely safe – such as this blog post by Marc Siegel, an associate professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Medical Center.

“The body scanners are safe for children, the elderly and pregnant women. I can’t tell you whether they work to deter or capture terrorists, but I can tell you that they are completely safe.”

But you know what? The medical community doesn’t believe they are completely safe. Consider this letter of April 6, 2010  from a group of concerned scientists at the University of California San Francisco to Dr John P. Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology.

“We are writing to call your attention to serious concerns about the potential health risksof the recently adopted whole body backscatter X-ray airport security scanners.This is an urgent situation as these X-ray scanners are rapidly being implemented as a primary screening step for all air travel passengers. Our overriding concern is the extent to which the safety of this scanning device has been adequately demonstrated.”

Fears over the radiation from the machines are frequently dismissed by the claim that the dose is equivalent to two minutes at altitude in the aeroplane. But the UCSF scientists say this is misleading.

“The X-ray dose from these devices has often been compared in the media to the cosmic ray exposure inherent to airplane travel or that of a chest X-ray. However, this comparison is very misleading: both the air travel cosmic ray exposure and chest X- rays have much higher X-ray energies and the health consequences are appropriately understood in terms of the whole body volume dose. In contrast, these new airport scanners are largely depositing their energy into the skin and immediately adjacent tissue, and since this is such a small fraction of body weight/vol, possibly by one to two orders of magnitude, the real dose to the skin is now high.”

The letter raises specific concerns for travellers over the age of 65, children and adolescents, pregnant women, men (because of the risk of sperm mutagenesis), women (because of the risk of breast cancer), and anyone with a cornea (part of the eye), a thymus (an essential organ in the chest area) and white blood cells. So, er, that’s everyone then.

It also points out that the machine deliver a higher dose than planned, whether accidentally because of a software glitch or deliberately because the TSA demands better resolution of images.

“Because this device can scan a human in a few seconds, the X-ray beam is very intense. Any glitch in power at any point in the hardware (or more importantly in software) that stops the device could cause an intense radiation dose to a single spot on the skin.Who will oversee problems with overall dose after repair or software problems? The TSA is already complaining about resolution limitations; who will keep the manufacturers and/or TSA from just raising the dose, an easy way to improve signal-to-noise and get higher resolution? Lastly, given the recent incident (on December 25th), how do we know whether the manufacturer or TSA, seeking higher resolution, will scan the groin area more slowly leading to a much higher total dose?”

One x-ray doesn’t kill a person – unless of course, there is a software glitch and they get the wrong dose. The health effects are cumulative. Thousands of people die from x-rays every year – their use should be taken seriously, whatever the TSA or the media might tell you.

Now in my case, I have a special reason for concern, besides being a woman with white blood cells, a thymus and two corneas. At the time of flying, I’ll be 29 weeks’ pregnant with twins. Siegel over at Forbes might dismiss my concerns as “irrational fear”, but I call it the precautionary principle. I’m not terribly happy about going through the scanners at the best of times but I sure don’t want to do it in my current condition. I’ve discussed this with my obstetrician and he is supportive and will write me a letter in case the TSA denies me my right to a pat-down or tries to make it difficult for me.

You might think this should not even be a question, since TSA official policy is that people can opt for a pat-down in lieu of going through the machines. But in Seattle, fellow travel blogger Geraldine was made to feel like dirt for opting out and told by TSA officers that “only crazy people who read too much media” did so. And in Chicago, this pregnant woman was bullied into going through the scanner despite her request for a pat-down. The TSA officers actually told her “it was less than an ultrasound”. (Er, ultrasounds use sound waves not x-rays).

So I’m going prepared. I’ll print out the page from the TSA website that outlines my right to a pat-down. I’ll carry the letter from my doctor and perhaps the letter from the UCSF scientists for good measure. And I’ll try to pick a line with a regular metal detector.

I don’t really mind if I’m patted down, even if people are describing it as groping and saying that I’ll feel like I went to second base. I don’t care. I’m not a terrorist but I’m also not a prude – I’m happy for someone to touch me if that will demonstrate my innocence and help make everyone safer. I won’t feel violated because I gave consent. I just want my right not to go through the x-ray machine to be respected. And I don’t want to be made to feel bad for asking for it.

Wish me luck! Once I get through security, there’s still a 15-hour flight to consider! I’ve used Frequent Flyer points to request an upgrade, so here’s hoping that I’ll get that.

Photo Credit: “Airport Security” by redjar on Flickr, licensed for commercial use under Creative Commons.

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  1. That’s a no-brainer to me. Of course you’re going to opt out with two babies in utero. And hopefully people won’t give you the “crazy” symbol like they did Geraldine. The crazy part is with all these heightened “security precautions,” I still manage to get my whole toiletries bag through the X-ray machine every single flight undetected. I could have explosives in there, you know. Or worse, alcohol =)
    Camels & Chocolate´s last [type] ..On Safari- Laughing Hyenas

  2. I, too, printed out the page from the TSA website stating that people have the right to opt-out and be patted down. Thankfully, the folks in Boise were cool about me opting out (and the folks in SeaTac weren’t cool about it, but at least they knew it was my right).

    I think the real danger right now is actually to the TSA workers, who are being exposed to a LOT of radiation. I’m concerned for their well-being, even if they themselves aren’t.

    • Always best to be prepared. I´m sure there will soon be legal precedent from TSA employees claiming to be affected by the radiation, this hot topic will be around for a while.

  3. @Everywhereist I agree. I also wonder how long it will be before a TSA employee sues the TSA for the trauma of having to grope thousands of passengers!

  4. Wow, great post, Caitlin. I totally sympathise and believe that you’re doing the right thing. In comparison with the possible risks of the TSA scan, a mere pat down is nothing. I’ve always been suspicious of people who make such a fuss about something so mundane as a pat down. Anyway, have a safe trip and good luck with the birth.

  5. Good luck, it’s always good to stand with your beliefs and
    have some supporting papers at hand.
    Hope everything will work out just fine. Happy Trip!

  6. Good on ya for not letting them intimidate you.

    Congrats on the twins; very exciting. And smart move having the children in Australia – 2nd best country in the world to be a mother, after all ;)

  7. Here’s a good article on AOL about the health and safety aspects of the scanners:
    Caitlin´s last [type] ..Best prizes in 2010 Passports with Purpose raffle

  8. ok…well if this TSA scanner help a lot and does not take a risk of someone then its good. TSA scan is give the assure to all of us especially the people bearing their child in the womb and also the children.