I don’t want to write about the privacy concerns regarding the recently employed body scanners at various airports. Do I feel invaded? Do I feel very unhappy about the idea of my fat ass and saggy boobs being exposed? Oh yes, indeed, I do! Even if these particular parts of my body were in perfect shape and proportion. I don’t want to write about the effectiveness of this technological marvel. Do I question whether the cost of the scanners is worth the payback in security benefits? Oh yes, indeed, I do! What I want is to write about the technology and its possible health effects.
Body scanners are whole body imaging devices that use either backscatter X-ray or millimeter wave radiation. The energy being emitted by a backscatter X-ray is a type of ionizing radiation while millimeter wave scanners rely on radio frequency bands. The one-million-dollar-question: are they safe? The answer: we don’t know. Well, I’m not necessarily claiming my one million dollars here but I dare write it in plain sight: we don’t know! And that’s the whole point! I, for one, would like to know it before the scanners are used frequently on me. I, for one, question whether security measurements outweigh unknown health risks.
There are so many conflicting data on safety of both technologies. Generally, ionizing radiation may lead to cancer but it remains difficult to quantify the risk of low radiation exposures. Several radiation safety authorities as well as FDA have stated that the dose from one screening is so low that it presents an extremely small risk to any individual. However, there are experimental and epidemiological data that question the existence of a threshold dose of radiation below which there is no increased risk of cancer. Furthermore, researchers at the University of California San Francisco have argued that the amount of radiation is actually higher than claimed by the TSA and manufacturers of body scanners since the doses were calculated as if distributed throughout the whole body, but the radiation from backscatter x-ray scanners is focused on just the skin and surrounding tissues. Then, there’s also a difference between the total exposure and the exposure to specific and sensitive areas of skin during the scanning process. And what about the millimeter-wave scanners, which are not even considered carcinogenic? Personally, I find it a bit puzzling why statements like: “There is little evidence that exposures to radio-frequency radiation increase risk of cancer,” translate to “Millimeter-wave scanners are safe.” ‘Little’ evidence isn’t ‘no’ evidence. Believe me, it doesn’t seem that safe when you read some of the ‘little’ evidence demonstrating that the exposure to lower frequencies of millimeter waves have demonstrated an increased risk of cancer and faster rates of tumor progression. Finally, do I even dare to mention potential malfunctions of these machines, which could lead to an increase in radiation dose? Oh well, I just did.
So, again, do full-body scanners pose no health risks to air travelers? I stand by my opinion that there isn’t enough data to know one way or the other, but there’s enough to cause some serious concerns.
My final thought: I’m rather happy I don’t need to fly on business few times a week…