TSA to Conduct New Body Scanner Radiation Study

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) just announced its plans to conduct a new body scanner radiation study, said the agency’s chief officer. The move was prompted by a ProPublica investigation brought up at a Senate hearing conducted on aviation security.

The ProPublica 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, said ProPublica. Some of that panel’s members voiced concern about the broad use of X-ray scanners, including those used in airports, ProPublica noted.

The scanners are in use at scores of U.S. airports, installed to help avoid attacks on America’s aviation system. About 486 full body scanners are in use in 78 airports.

We previously wrote that airport full body scanners have not only prompted controversy over privacy issues, but they have opened debates over a so-called “cancer cluster” in airport security workers in Boston, according to 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 government did not appropriately test scanner safety and ignored 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 uses two different body scanners to search for explosives, said ProPublica. One is an X-ray machine utilizing ionizing radiation energy that has been linked to DNA damage; the other, a millimeter-wave machine, uses radiofrequency technology, and has not been linked to cancer, ProPublica explained.

Senator Susan Collins, the top-ranking Homeland Security Committee Republican recommends the Department of Homeland Security independently review scanner health effects and “establish a goal of using radiation-free screening technology,” wrote ProPublica.

According to David Brenner, director of Columbia University’s Center for Radiological Research, not only is it difficult to identify the amount of radiation emitted by the scanner, “I see no reason at all why the TSA staff working the airport X-ray machines are not provided with film badges to monitor the radiation dose. If they were working with X-ray machines in a hospital setting, they would certainly be wearing film badges,” Heartland Time quoted previously.

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