Travelers (Especially Men and Children), Beware: Urgent Warning from Scientists on TSA Machines’ Radiation
By Mary Theroux • Tuesday November 23, 2010 9:54 PM PDT • 15 Comments
Scientists are calling into question the research cited by—and commissioned by—government officials regarding the relative risks posed to travelers subjected to full body scanners’ radiation.
Independent scientists find the actual radiation exposure is 10 times TSA estimates, and argue that the health risks aren’t mathematically worth taking:
[Arizona State University, Tempe physics] Prof. Peter Rez explained to MSNBC that while the risk of getting a fatal cancer from the screening is minuscule, it’s about equal to the probability an airplane will get blown up by a terrorist. Either way, the professor argues, dead is dead.
“There is not a case to be made for deploying [the scanners] to prevent such a low probability event,” Rez says.
Meanwhile a group of scientists at the University of California, San Francisco, have sent a letter to Obama’s Science Czar John Holdren:
...to call your attention to our concerns about the potential serious health risks of the recently adopted whole body back scatter X-ray airport security scanners. This is an urgent situation as these X-ray scanners are rapidly being implemented. [emphasis added]
The scientists further detail their concerns for the health of:
- Older travelers > 65
- The female population especially sensitive to mutagenesis-provoking radiation leading to breast cancer.
- HIV and cancer patients
- Children and adolescents
- Pregnant women
- All men:
Because of the proximity of the testicles to skin, this tissue is at risk for sperm mutagenesis.
The scientists further warn:
...given the recent [underwear bomber incident], 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?
In addition, the scientists believe white blood cells are at risk, and ask Dr. Holdren if the effects of the radiation on the cornea and thymus have been determined.
The scientists continue:
As longstanding UCSF scientists and physicians, we have witnessed critical errors in decisions that have seriously affected the health of thousands of people in the United States. These unfortunate errors were made because of the failure to recognize potential adverse outcomes of decisions made at the federal level. Crises create a sense of urgency that frequently leads to hasty decisions where unintended consequences are not recognized. Examples include the failure of the CDC to recognize the risk of blood transfusions in the early stages of the AIDS epidemic, approval of drugs and devices by the FDA without sufficient review, and improper standards set by the EPA, to name a few. Similarly, there has not been sufficient review of the intermediate and long-term effects of radiation exposure associated with airport scanners. There is good reason to believe that these scanners will increase the risk of cancer to children and other vulnerable populations. We are unanimous in believing that the potential health consequences need to be rigorously studied before these scanners are adopted. Modifications that reduce radiation exposure need to be explored as soon as possible.
And the scientists rightly point out that the technology is highly susceptible to being made even more risky by its human operators. In addition to the warning to men, above:
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?