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The Inactivation of the Body Scanners

Everything you always wanted to know about the TSA’s body scanners — and why many of them have been warehoused.

A traveler stands for a full-body scan at Pittsburgh International Airport in November 2010. Now, many of the TSA's X-ray body scanners are sitting in a Texas warehouse after being removed from many of the largest U.S. airports. (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

X-raying passengers for airline security became a lot less common in 2012.

The use of radiation by security agencies, especially at airport checkpoints, was the subject of a ProPublica series in late 2011 and early 2012.

The investigation found that the Transportation Security Administration had glossed over the small cancer risk posed by even low doses of radiation. The stories also showed that the United States was almost alone in the world in X-raying passengers and that the Food and Drug Administration had gone against its own advisory panel, which recommended the agency set a federal safety standard for security X-rays. In addition, ProPublica reported that, outside airports, other security agencies are exposing people to radiation in more settings and in increasing doses.

Now, many of the TSA's 250 X-ray body scanners worth about $14 million are sitting in a Texas warehouse after being removed from most of the biggest U.S. airports, including Los Angeles, Chicago O'Hare, New York's John F. Kennedy, Boston Logan, Charlotte Douglas and Orlando.

The TSA said it replaced the X-ray machines with scanners that use another technology, millimeter waves, to make the lines move faster, allowing the agency to screen more passengers for explosives. But the result, intended or not, is that far fewer airline passengers are being exposed to radiation during screening. Millimeter waves, a form of high-frequency radio waves like those used in cell phones, have not been shown to cause cancer.

The manufacturer of the X-ray scanners, Rapiscan Systems, has also faced problems in developing its privacy software. Such software produces a generic cartoon image of passengers' bodies, allaying privacy groups' complaints that the scans amount to a "virtual strip search." The TSA faces a June 2013 congressional deadline to install the software on all its body scanners.

In November, the TSA sent Rapiscan a "show cause letter," which is typically issued when the government is considering terminating a contract. The agency hasn't said why. Rapiscan said the letter questioned whether the company changed the machine in a way that didn't conform with the design the TSA approved. Rapiscan says it did conform.

Rep. Mike Rogers, the Republican head of the House transportation security subcommittee, cited an allegation that Rapiscan had falsified a software test, which the company denies.

Following months of congressional pressure, in December, the TSA agreed to contract with the National Academy of Sciences to evaluate the health effects of body scanners. A provision to require such a test was included in the Homeland Security funding bill that passed the Senate appropriations committee in May; the final bill has not yet passed. It is not clear if the proposed study will add much to what is already known about the scanners, because it's unclear if the academy will conduct new tests of the machines or merely review previous studies.

Passengers traveling through Seattle-Tacoma, Phoenix Sky Harbor, Washington Dulles and several other airports still must pass through an X-ray scan or opt out and receive a pat-down search.

The TSA says it hopes to eventually move the scanners from storage to smaller airports after resolving the issue with Rapiscan. In addition, the agency is considering an X-ray machine made by another company under a contract for the next generation of body scanners.

The last X-ray scanners in use in Europe were removed from Manchester Airport in the United Kingdom in September. Israel, which is small but influential in the security world, has installed an X-ray body scanner for testing at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv.

A side-by-side comparison of the TSA's body scanners, including photographs of them, can be found here. And here are some key points about the two types of scanners:

Safety: The X-ray machine, known as the backscatter, uses ionizing radiation, which has long been linked to cancer. According to many studies, the dose of the machine is very small, equivalent to the cosmic radiation received in a few minutes of the flight. The TSA cites those studies in claiming they're safe. The National Academy of Sciences has concluded that there is no known dose of radiation that does not increase the risk of cancer, and radiation groups recommend that the public limit its exposure as much as reasonably possible.

Although there has been some doubt about the long-term safety of millimeter waves, scientists have not found a mechanism for such waves to mutate genes and cause cancer.

Privacy: The millimeter wave machine contains privacy software that scans a passenger's body for anything unusual that might be hidden under his or her clothes. It then creates a generic image of a body and highlights any potential threat with a yellow box. No human being analyzes the image; it is all automated.

The manufacturers of the X-ray scanner are working on similar software. But for now, the machine creates a heavily filtered image of the person's naked body, which is viewed in a separate room by a TSA screener who cannot see the passenger.

Detection: Federal officials have released no information about the detection rates of the two machines. Security experts say that in their original forms, the image of the X-ray machine was clearer than that of the millimeter wave machine. But any difference was made minimal through training and now by the computer algorithms that automatically scan the passenger, they say. Government inspectors have repeatedly found "vulnerabilities" with the machines, but to what degree is not known.

False alarms: Based on reports and interviews with foreign officials, the millimeter wave machine has a much higher false-alarm rate than the X-ray scanner, tripping on innocuous things such as folds in clothing, ties and even sweat. Those false alarms require a quick search of the area where the anomaly was detected, whereas alarms with the X-ray scanner usually require a full-body pat-down.

Do NOT ever confuse or let them convince you that cosmic/visable light “radiation” is a similar comparison to IONIZING , PENETRATING radiation. They are different. Sunlight does not penetrate you through front to back or vice versa. Xrays and CT scanners do penetrate your skin through to your organs and bones. This dose is ABSORBED.

It has NO biological function though the word hormesis is used as if ionizing radiation has a beneficial factor. Ionizing radiation is just that, it forms IONS aka FREE Radicals.  It depletes the oxygen molecule, it damages your DNA 67% within 1 mS. The open repair window is about an hour. Anti oxidants are basically Vit ADEK< B Complex, N Acetyl cysteine, some selenium and maybe zinc. These are ingredients listed for BioShield Radioprotectants, OTC at $43. for a one month supply and recommended for frequent flyers.  The energy equivalent of 1 xrays is compared to 67 ergs or calories in a cup of coffee as if that matters in heat expenditure. Xrays are biologically damaging and this has been known since the late 1800’s and Marie Sklodowska Curie and husband Becquerel knew this. John Tyndall, the scientist, see the Tyndall Effect, see radiobiology and the radiologist, page 159/hereditary effects of radiation. See human radiation experiments. See BIER V and VII and ACHRE report and ICRP 2012 and many other sites regarding the effects of radiation and isotopes. Shame on them. Shame on them.  CT scan, full body = 300-600 chest xrays. Dental xray full mouth can cause occipital meningiomas, CTs Sinus can cause radiation induced meningiomas, 95% of the cause. Xrays cause floppy gums when teeth are extracted, poor healing/pain for months or years. When you’re all fibrosed up from internal damage, the monsters will try to convince you to have MRI scans, though not ionizing, they do use coated/chelated GADOLINIUM metal which cannot eliminate in timely manner and it collects in the body, breaks down and forms the toxic GD+3. This manifests as skin disorders, sores for over a year or more and occurs either immediately or months later. My case began 7 months later. for over a year and still present.  see mayomedicallaboratories com re G for Gadolinium and side effects of gadolinium.  You still get radiation exposure though 3D chest xrays as they look stationary, but rotate around your body , as well as 3D CT scans and 3D dental exams. With radiocontrasts,even more radiation exposures. Radiation causes diabetes, essential hypertension, sickle cell, cleft palate and lip, mental retardation, cystic fibrosis and Tay Sachs and micro encephaly and on and on. The newer scanners can read down to the molecular levels and determine blood glucose levels, sweat levels, etc.  see fda’s dvice.com wear a patch, take mg/cu laced biopills, that supposedly dissolve in HCL acid in stomach, transmits info to the doc, time, dose, glucose levels and so on to the ‘doc”. who may call the person and tell them to get moving, or other things. This is truly invasive and not the American way, but their way. The highway of death is the outcome from all these technologies and pharmacides and invasive “species” I call extreme oversight, lack of judgement and dangerous. little tangent there, but so what. same tactics.

walter d. shutter, jr.

Dec. 28, 2012, 3:52 p.m.

@ Janet

Good News!  Your Pharmacy just called and your prescription of Lithium Citrate is ready for pick up.

what’s the matter? Truth hurts? The references are there for all to see. People like you kill people with your lies. You cannot bash me or discredit me. I’ve had it with people LIKE YOU. YOUR meds are severely lacking as is your knowledge and it’s striking how dumb you are. I don’t take any meds nor need to. My MD even stated to me, NO MORE RADIATION, this is a UCH Immunologist, too,  Screw you Walter D Shutter, JR, SHUT YOUR MOUTH. Don’t bother me again with your useless comments.

@Janet

The “Enter” key is your friend.  A few line breaks in your Great Wall of Text would make it more readable.

Ever look closely at news copy?  Paragraphs are usually only one or two sentences long and they’re generally short.

It makes them much easier to read than dense, multisentence paragraph.

Just sayin’.

@janet,
as a cancer survivor, thanks for the info. I never trusted those xray machines.

I am with @Janet on this one. I am old enough to remember when sgoe stores had simple X-ray machines under which you could D-I-Y X-rays of your feet to see if the feet had sufficient room in the shoes to move freely.

Then they discovered that they were dangerous, some models leaked huge amounts of radiation around the area of the genitalia which wasn]t good for boys or girls.

Then there was ‘naturally occurring’ Radon gas found accumulating in many homes basements. No problem, they said, it’s ‘naturally occurring’, as if there is any difference between natural and man-made Radon gas. 

And tell the residents of Ha Noi the ‘naturally occurring’ arsenic in their water supply is harmless, as they suffer the ill-effects of it.

Remember the Radar Speed Traps” Well cops who spent years nailing speeders withe the radar version are now suffering from the years of exposure, so much so that the courts, having heard evidence, are warding damages..

The personnel of many agencies have been ‘bought’ with the promise of lucrative contracts from industry. Especially the FDA who deal with rich enterprises. How many medical devices or medicines have been expedited thorough only to kill or injure people in the field. These include heart devices, breast replacements, etc.

By attacking @Janet you are only exposing your own ignorance. Disagree you may, but in a balanced conversation people who make things personal are, in reality, admitting they have lost the argument.

I am with @Janet on this one. I am old enough to remember when sgoe stores had simple X-ray machines under which you could D-I-Y X-rays of your feet to see if the feet had sufficient room in the shoes to move freely.

Then they discovered that they were dangerous, some models leaked huge amounts of radiation around the area of the genitalia which wasn’t good for boys or girls.

Then there was ‘naturally occurring’ Radon gas found accumulating in many homes basements. No problem, they said, it’s ‘naturally occurring’, as if there is any difference between natural and man-made Radon gas. 

And tell the residents of Ha Noi the ‘naturally occurring’ arsenic in their water supply is harmless, as they suffer the ill-effects of it.

Remember the Radar Speed Traps” Well cops who spent years nailing speeders withe the radar version are now suffering from the years of exposure, so much so that the courts, having heard evidence, are warding damages..

The personnel of many agencies have been ‘bought’ with the promise of lucrative contracts from industry. Especially the FDA who deal with rich enterprises. How many medical devices or medicines have been expedited thorough only to kill or injure people in the field. These include heart devices, breast replacements, etc.

By attacking @Janet you are only exposing your own ignorance. Disagree you may, but in a balanced conversation people who make things personal are, in reality, admitting they have lost the argument.

Michael Chertoff making lots of money was the only point of those machines. So Afraid….

They haven’t caught a single terrorist; all they could ever possibly do is change the game in a miniscule way—and at an obscene cost: security mania is wrecking our culture

And, I have read that the TSA want to install them at rail terminals. They are deranged zealots, if you ask me >_<}/

So when is Michael Chertoff giving us OUR MONEY BACK? We sank how much taxpayer money into bodyscanning machines that DID NOT WORK?

Let the former head of the Department of Homeland Security who cashed in on this nonsense pay the public back the money he stole from us!

The naysayers and repudiator can weasel around the subject (but not actually address it) all they like.

Janet is right.

The research on this can be found easily. Numerous physicians and scientists have spoken out about BOTH of these types of scanners; look it up. While you’re at, look up Agenda 21 - the correlations for that are everywhere. I wouldn’t believe in it myself had I not done the research.

Propublica is spouting false info about safety. I wonder who really funds them? Not surprised to find the founder used to work at the Wall Street Journal..

While I agree completely with Janet’s analysis, to me, the real problem with the scanners is that they’re predicated on a “banana in the ear” hypothesis.

There’s the old Vaudeville (and Sesame Street) joke, where the straight man asks the comedian why he has a banana in his ear.  It is, of course, to keep the crocodiles off the lawn.  There aren’t any crocodiles?  It must be working, then.

You and I can see that the dearth of terrorists on a plane is because, well, planes aren’t attractive targets if you can’t use them to escape or as weapons (solved by locking the cockpit door).  But to a salesman, it’s a feature!

Especially if you can sweep the machines’ failures under the carpet when nobody’s looking.

That’s not to invalidate what Janet says, but if this wasn’t a scam to begin with, I could at least accept (with reservation) that the number of people saved might be worth the number of people harmed in someone’s analysis.

But since the people saved are imaginary, and the protection it hypothetically provides seems completely bogus, given the failures, any harm done is unconscionable.

Hm.  I wonder if Chertoff has ties to the cancer research industry.  That’d be a tidy business model:  Spread fear of an exceedingly rare problem.  Sell product to resolve the fear but create a real problem.  Sell snake oil to pretend to resolve the new problem.

Also, I’m just going to come out and say something off-color that’s been bugging me for months.

Does anybody else think that “Rapiscan” was some sort of inside joke about the nude pictures generated?

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Body Scanners

Body Scanners: Risking Health to Secure Airports

In an effort to detect explosives hidden under clothing, is the TSA jeopardizing passenger safety?

The Story So Far

The Transportation Security Administration is planning to roll out body scanners at nearly every airport security lane in the country by 2014. Right now, it has deployed more than 500, split about evenly between two technologies—one using X-rays and another using radio frequency waves.

Several prominent radiation safety experts have raised concerns about exposing millions of airline passengers to X-rays.

More »

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