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Airport Body Scanners: Why You Should Take the Pat-Down Instead

By Marcel J. Hernandez, N.D.

airport scanner imageWhile I was on the mainland for ten days in November, there was a big flap in the media about the enhanced TSA pre-flight security screening involving the use of body scanners and “enhanced pat downs.” One group of protestors to the body scanners advocated that everyone who flew on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving (the busiest flying day of the year) choose the pat-down option instead of the scanner as a protest against invasion of privacy. The pat-down option would create an immense logjam and tie everything up. My thoughts were echoed by one flyer who was interviewed for the evening news: “Why should I purposely want to make myself late getting to my destination?” But the question of privacy is not the only issue involving airport scanners.

Although government scientists say that airport scanners administer radiation “1,000-times less than a chest X-ray,” there’s more to the story. Radiation damage depends on the volume of tissue exposed. Chest X-rays and gamma-radiation from outer space is diffused over the entire body so that the dose to the skin is extremely small. We also know that certain groups of people are at a much higher risk than others. These include babies, small children, pregnant women, the elderly, people with impaired immunity (those with HIV infection, cancer patients, people with immune deficiency diseases, and people with abnormal DNA repair mechanism, just to name a few).

In addition, as we grow older, our DNA accumulates a considerable amount of unrepaired damage. In these cases, even low doses of radiation can trigger the development of skin cancers, including the deadly melanoma. Also of concern is exposing the eyes, since this could increase one’s risk of developing cataracts.

Dr. David Brenner who heads Columbia University's Center for Radiological Research, says that radiation produced by the scanners is twenty times higher than the official estimate. Physics professor Peter Rez at Arizona State University supports 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."

Backscatter Airport Scanning UnitOther researchers are also concerned. An independent group of University of California at San Francisco physicians from the radiology and diagnostic imaging fields expressed “serious concerns” about the “dangerously high” dose of radiation to the skin by these “backscatter scanners,” as they are called. The majority of radiation generated by airport scanners is concentrated on the surface of the skin and a few millimeters into the skin. Ultra radiation-sensitive tissues close to the surface of the skin include the testes, eyes, breast tissue, and circulating blood cells.

Other high-level cancer researchers, biophysicists, and radiology experts 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. In the words of late President Ronald Reagan: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.’”

The most common sentiment echoed by researchers is that the body scanners have not received a proper medical review. 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.

Even pilots have been urged by their unions to opt out of the new body scanners at the airports due to radiation concerns. Should frequent travelers be concerned, as well?

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