Europe Bans Airport X-ray Scanners Over Health Concerns

Europe has banned the use of airport X-ray scanners over health concerns. The European Union (EU) issued the ruling banning the devices in every European airport after the agency that enforces rules throughout the EU’s 27 member nations, the European Commission, said the prohibition is needed to not “risk jeopardizing citizens’ health and safety,” Forbes reported.

Forbes explained that the scanners use “backscatter” ionized radiation technology and that the devices emit radiation in amounts that could potentially damage DNA and could lead to cancer. Although emitted in small amounts, studies reveal that over time, the radiation can lead to adverse health reactions.

European airports will now use millimeter-wave scanners that use low-energy radio waves; no credible studies have linked this type of radio wave exposure to cancer, said Forbes. In the U.S. the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) uses both, X-ray and millimeter wave scanners in airports nationwide, said Forbes. Meanwhile, in response to the EU’s ruling, the TSA argued that, since January 2010, over 300 dangerous or illegal items have been found on passengers due to X-ray body scanner technology, reported Forbes.

We previously wrote that airport full body scanners have not only prompted controversy over privacy issues, but have opened debates over a so-called “cancer cluster” in airport security workers in Boston, according to Transportation Security Administration (TSA) union representatives. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) obtained documents from the Department of Homeland Security under the Freedom of Information Act that revealed the U.S. government did not appropriately test scanner safety, ignoring concerns from airport agents about radiation emitted by the machines.

The documents include emails and radiation test results and studies. That paperwork, said EPIC, proves that Homeland Security “publicly mischaracterized” National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) safety findings and suggested that the NIST “affirmed the safety” of the scanners. An NIST official stated, via an email that EPIC obtained, that the agency never conducted scanner safety tests and does not conduct such testing; the NIST simply measured radiation from one machine against prevailing standards. No in-depth product testing over time is mandated. As we’ve mentioned, scientists expressed doubts about these reviews, noting that the TSA has utilized tests performed by the machines’ makers, not an unbiased third party.

The TSA recently announced plans to conduct a body scanner radiation study, said its chief officer. The move was prompted by a ProPublica investigation brought up at a Senate hearing conducted on aviation security. That probe was conducted in collaboration with PBS NewsHour and revealed that while scanner radiation emissions are low, scientific studies have found that they can increase cancer risks. The report also revealed that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) acted against the advice of a 1998 expert panel that recommended the FDA set federal safety scanners for the devices. Some panel members voiced concern about the broad use of X-ray scanners, including those used in airports, ProPublica noted.

“One after another, the experts convened by the Food and Drug Administration raised questions about the machine because it violated a longstanding principle in radiation safety—that humans shouldn’t be X-rayed unless there is a medical benefit,” the report stated, wrote Forbes. The FDA responded with a letter that alleged the cancer risk from X-ray scanners is about 1 in 400 million, much lower than ProPublica’s findings that from 6 to 100 Americans, annually, could develop cancer from the devices, said Forbes.

Forbes reported that the TSA intends to install 1,275 backscatter and millimeter-wave scanners that would cover over half of its security lanes by the end of next year and another 1,800 that would cover just about all of the lanes by 2014.

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