X-ray scanners deserve scrutiny
Published: Sunday, January 8, 2012
Updated: Sunday, January 8, 2012 19:01
The possible health risks from X-ray body scanners at airports have prompted officials in Broward County to consider banning the security machines until the Transportation Security Administration can prove they are safe for fliers.
Last month, a majority of Broward County commissioners voted to ask the TSA to do more to study the safety of the "backscatter" scanners, according to the South Florida Sun Sentinel. The decision to consider banning the scanners at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport came just weeks after the European Commission voted to ban X-ray technology in security scanners in Europe's airports "in order not to risk jeopardizing citizens' health and safety."
The scanners in question are Rapiscan Systems Secure 1000, which emit the same kind of ionizing radiation as the X-ray machines found in hospitals. Although the amount of radiation emitted is relatively low, the potential for cancer is still present. The TSA and Department of Homeland Security repeatedly assure the scanners are safe for passengers, but do not provide peer-reviewed research to support this guarantee.
On the contrary, the Electronic Privacy Information Center has obtained one DHS document from a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit that reveals concern in a Johns Hopkins University study over the radiation zones around the scanners exceeding the general public dose limit. This document can be found along with others at EPIC.org.
Despite the growing presence of the scanners in airports nationwide, there is little regulatory oversight in place. Because the scanners are not used for a medical purpose, the "FDA cannot subject them to the rigorous evaluation it applies to medical devices," according to ProPublica.
"About 250 X-ray scanners are currently in U.S. airports, along with 264 body scanners that use a different technology, a form of low-energy radio waves known as millimeter waves," according to the same ProPublica report. The scanners that use millimeter waves, made by the defense contractor L-3 Communications, do not pose the same radiation risk.
Both companies have profited from multimillion-dollar contracts awarded by the government to supply airports with the body scanners, and they also spent millions of dollars lobbying Washington, according to USA Today. Rapiscan even caught heat for hiring Michael Chertoff, a former DHS secretary who frequented TV news shows to advocate the scanners' use in the fight against terrorism.
If the threat of terrorism demands intrusive body scanners, the machines should at least be safe for passengers and operators. It is too much to ask travelers to forgo their health along with their privacy, and those most at risk seem to be the TSA agents who must work around the machines daily.
Maybe Orange County should consider asking the TSA the same question. Are these X-ray scanners really keeping us safe?