Are Body Scanners Dangerous to Your Health?

As the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) pushes forward with its plan to place full-body scanners in all American airports, experts in the scientific community are raising serious concerns that the full-body scanners are not medically safe for the millions of people that will be exposed to them each year. Even the Allied Pilots Association has urged its members to opt out of the body scanning measures because of the "ionizing radiation, which could be harmful to their health."

In April 2010, four members of the University of California faculty relayed to Dr. John P. Holdren, President Obama’s Science and Technology czar, their concerns about the serious health risks posed to travelers by the whole body back scatter X-ray scanners. Dr. Sedat is a Professor Emeritus in Biochemistry and Biophysics, with expertise in imaging; Dr. Marc Sherman is an internationally well known and respected cancer expert; and Drs. David Agard and Robert Stroud are X-ray crystallographers and imaging experts. Suffice it to say, these men know what they’re talking about. So when they suggest that an immediate moratorium is needed on the use of the scanners in order to carry out a second independent evaluation to determine that the scanners really are safe, our government, which is supposed to protect us from these kinds of dangers, should listen.

Specifically, these scientists argue that the concentration of radiation on the skin of individuals being scanned poses a serious cancer risk that has been largely dismissed. The TSA has compared the radiation received from the body scanner to the radiation that is absorbed in regular airplane travel or the radiation from a chest X-ray. However, in their memo to Dr. Holdren, Drs. Sedat, Agard, Stroud and Shuman note that this comparison is "very misleading." The TSA estimates only consider the radiation as it would be if absorbed by the whole body, as opposed to how the scanner really operates, which is to concentrate the radiation on the skin. The scientists claim that the body scanners have not received a proper medical review using "key data" which would allow for a proper understanding of the medical impact of the technology which they believe could cause mutations and skin cancer. They suggest setting up an independent panel to review the safety concerns posed by the scanners, a highly reasonable suggestion for a piece of technology that will be scanning millions of people a year.

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Other scientists have also voiced their concerns over the devices, such as Dr. David Brenner who heads Columbia University’s Center for Radiological Research. He states that radiation produced by the scanners is twenty times higher than the official estimate. Physics professor Peter Rez at Arizona State University echoes Dr. Brenner’s claims. He points out that there is a real possibility that a body scanner could malfunction, concentrating unsafe amounts of radiation on one area of the body. "The scary thing to me is not what happens in normal operations, but what happens if the machine fails. Mechanical things break down, frequently."

On a side note, while it’s bad enough that the scanners can see through your clothing to an alarming degree, they can also reveal quite a bit about your health history. As Dr. Kristin Byrne, a radiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, points out, "The airport scanners show anything on the surface of the skin and very closely under the skin." This includes foreign objects close to the skin, including piercings, catheters and colostomy bags, as well as breast implants and prosthetic testicles. These are items that most people want to keep private and away from the prying eyes of the public and government officials.

Despite all of this, Janet Napolitano, secretary of the Department of Homeland Defense insists that the full-body scanners "are safe, efficient, and protect passenger privacy. They have been independently evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, who have all affirmed their safety." Parroting her, TSA Administrator John Pistole in testimony before a Senate panel on November 16, 2010, claims that the body scanners struck a proper balance between privacy and security and that the radiation exposure was "well within safety standards."

Of course, the FDA, which has been criticized heavily in recent years as being fundamentally broken and even corrupt, has a very dubious track record when it comes to ensuring the safety and efficacy of drugs, biologics and medical devices. Over the years, the FDA has been accused of causing high drug prices, keeping life-saving drugs off the market, allowing unsafe drugs on the market because of pressure from pharmaceutical companies and censoring health information about nutritional supplements and foods. For example, the FDA recently admitted to making a mistake in approving a controversial knee implant against the advice of its scientific reviewers. As the Associated Press reports, "The announcement comes a year after the agency first acknowledged that its decision to approve the device was influenced by outside pressure, including lobbying by four lawmakers from the company’s home state of New Jersey."

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The question is: if the scanners are potentially dangerous, then why has the government been in such an all-fire rush to implement them?

First, we have to recognize that we are ruled by an elite class of individuals who are completely out of touch with the travails of the average American. The government officials who have foisted these scanners on us — President Obama, whose stimulus funds are paying for the scanners; members of Congress, who have pushed for the technology to be implemented in the airports; and Janet Napolitano and John Pistole, who have been adamant about subjecting the American people to all manner of indignities and rights violations for the sake of security — don’t have to go through the scanners (they have the luxury of flying on private or government planes and having security clearances that allow them to breeze past such barriers), so there’s no risk to them medically.

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Second, we are — and have been for some time — the unwitting victims of a system so corrupt that those who stand up for the rule of law and aspire to transparency in government are in the minority. This corruption is so vast it spans all branches of government — from the power-hungry agencies under the executive branch and the corporate puppets within the legislative branch to a judiciary that is, more often that not, elitist and biased towards government entities and corporations. The scanners are a perfect example of this collusion between corporate lobbyists and government officials.

Third, we are relatively expendable in the eyes of government — faceless numbers of individuals who serve one purpose, which is to keep the government machine running through our labor and our tax dollars. Those in power aren’t losing any sleep over the indignities we are being made to suffer or the possible risks to our health. All they care about are power and control.

"We the people" have not done the best job of holding our representatives accountable or standing up for our rights. But there must be a limit to our temerity. Clearly, there are enough concerns about the health risks posed by these scanners to justify placing a moratorium on their use in airports. Something as potentially dangerous as these scanners certainly shouldn’t be forced on the American public without the absolute assurance that it will not harm our health or undermine our liberties. At a minimum, Congress should establish an independent commission — one not comprised of individuals connected to corporations that stand to profit from the scanners — to fully examine these concerns and report back to the American people. And DHS and TSA need to go back to the drawing board and find a better way to protect national security without sacrificing our health and our freedoms.