Journalism in the Public Interest

Invasion of the Body Scanners: They’re Spreading, But Are They Safe and Effective?

One type of scanner uses X-rays, and ProPublica and PBS NewsHour revealed questions about whether it might increase cancer cases. But a safer type of scanner has its own problems. ProPublica investigated the biggest change to airport security since the metal detector.

A Transportation Security Administration volunteer demonstrates a full-body scanner at O'Hare International Airport on March 15, 2010 in Chicago. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

This is part of our year-end series, looking at where things stand in each of our major investigations.

It has become routine for airline passengers across the country: Instead of walking through a metal detector, they now step into a body scanner, hold their arms over their heads and wait until a machine peers through their clothing to make sure they're not hiding explosives.

The Transportation Security Administration has deployed more than 500 of the body scanners, which they call "advanced imaging technology." And the agency plans to install them at nearly every security lane by 2014.

The TSA has insisted that the new scanners present "no health or safety concerns for any passenger." The agency has said they have been used around the world. And it has reiterated that the machines were evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration, leading many to believe that one of the government's top safety regulators approved the technology.

But a ProPublica/PBS NewsHour investigation this year detailed how the TSA had glossed over cancer concerns about one kind of scanner that uses X-rays. In independent, peer-reviewed studies, radiation experts concluded that the X-ray scanner could cause six to 100 airline passengers each year to develop cancer. Outside the United States, few countries use X-ray imaging machines, also known as backscatters, in their airports. And the FDA has no authority to approve body scanners before they are sold because they are electronic products, not medical devices.

In 1998, an FDA advisory panel recommended a federal safety standard for the X-ray scanners. But the agency decided to go with a voluntary standard set by an industry group made up mostly of manufacturers and government agencies that wanted to use the machine.

In November, the European Union decided to prohibit X-ray body scanners in European airports. In the United States, members of Congress have pushed the TSA to conduct a new, independent safety review. And in Florida earlier this month, Broward County commissioners voted to demand the TSA prove that the X-ray imagers at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport are safe.

The TSA uses two types of body scanners:

  • The backscatter X-ray machine looks like two blue boxes and is used at major airports, such as Los Angeles, Chicago O'Hare and John F. Kennedy in New York.
  • The millimeter-wave machine looks like a round glass booth and is used at hubs such as Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth and San Francisco.

The X-ray scanner emits extremely low levels of ionizing radiation, a form of energy that strips electrons from atoms and damages DNA, potential leading to cancer. That risk, although small, has led some prominent scientists to ask why the TSA doesn't use just the millimeter-wave scanner, which uses low-powered electromagnetic waves that have not been linked to adverse health effects.

The TSA has said that keeping both technologies in play encourages the manufacturers to improve detection capability while lowering the cost for the taxpayer. The agency says the X-ray machine is safe because the radiation is equivalent to the amount passengers receive in two minutes of flying at altitude.

But ProPublica found some potential problems with the millimeter-wave scanner. Several other countries have reported a high rate of false alarms caused by innocuous things, such as folds in clothing, buttons and even sweat.

Other studies and a congressman briefed on classified tests have suggested the scanners could miss carefully concealed plastic explosives like the weapon used by the underwear bomber on Christmas Day 2009.

As Congress continues to debate the safety and quality of the body scanners, government investigators are set to release two important reports in the new year. The inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security is evaluating how well the TSA is monitoring the radiation of the backscatters. Meanwhile, the Government Accountability Office is wrapping up an investigation of the machines' detection capability, the results of which are likely to be classified.

“...The Transportation Security Administration has deployed more than 500 of the body scanners, which they call “advanced imaging technology…”


And I have deployed my unlimited mileage, rental car across the country, having vowed never again to subject myself to the humiliation of long lines, rude employees, nudie-cancer machines, loud and flatulent passengers and lost luggage.  Sure.  I arrive at my destination two or three days later, but I have heard a book on tape, eaten where I wanted, slept peacefully when I wanted, made my own choices and been in control of my safety and destiny the entire trip.

Doctors want you to have cancer so they can take ur property….

John T. Baker, Jr.

Dec. 28, 2011, 12:16 p.m.

Its all statistical games!  You’ll never be able to ID a single cancer victim of these scanner machines!  Merely getting ON the plane is a far greater risk due to the radiation exposure during a normal flight!  Of 300,000,000 Americans now alive 100,000,000 will die of cancer (at current death rates).  That number changes to about 100,000,020 because of these scanners.  Choking on peanut butter is a far greater risk!  Let’s move on folks!  If Americans could understand statistics, these kinds of stories would die of sheer boredom!  Shame on you!

It is important to remember that a former Director of Homeland Security has a substantial interest in the Scanning company, so your exposure to radiation is really a toll, and the money collected will be recycled to ensure that Americans can continue to have a secure and happy elite ruling class, just like Britain in the 1800’s. There is no shame in serfdom, just do as you are told, your cancer risk is very low.

Mr. Baker:

The likelihood of the scanners stopping an air problem is also miniscule, and you have to compare that to the marginal medical risk to see if there’s a benefit.  Both likelihoods (or “risks”) are too small to measure.

Did you read the article?  The scanners wouldn’t even have stopped the underwear bomber.  But you still want your tax dollars and ticket prices to go towards having them installed?

Cliff Brown
0 minutes ago

“...There is no shame in serfdom, just do as you are told, your cancer risk is very low.” 

Exactly!  And it isn’t just the screenings.  It’s the entire process of commercial flight for the majority of Americans.  It has become akin to a one a week bus route to a poor, rural location in India.  Flying used to be similar to spending a few hours in a decent breakfast cafe. It could get noisy and the food wasn’t the best, but people were friendly, the coffee was hot and accessible.  Courtesy and service really seemed to matter.  Not anymore.  Unless, of course, you happen to be in first class or flying a charter.  When did we, as middle class Americans, stop demanding to be treated with respect and courtesy?  Was our self respect outsourced along with our jobs, factories and production capacity?

John T. Baker, Jr.

Dec. 28, 2011, 1:59 p.m.

Mr Robinson, what do you suggest? Doing nothing?  Thank you but I’ll comfort myself in thinking that the ‘not knowing’ on behalf of the jihaddiots is some deterence! 

As for the later comment by Mr. Harper about service…welcome to the unregulated, chase-the-price-to-the-bottom mentality Americans have now.  We want no regs and we want everything for nothing, including a functioning government!  Well lots of luck folks…there are “bad” people out there who want your money for as little effort as possible.  You are on your own…every man for himself!  And guess who…the “bad” people are?  All of us something-for-nothing fools!

21 reasons scientists oppose body scanners:

It’s sad how people will believe that this procedure has magically made them safe. Face it if somebody wants to blow people up there are many other ways to do it. All they are accomplishing here is moving the target to somewhere else, oh and creating another industry we really don’t need. In this case the bomber merely has to approach the backed up line that the scanners created and do his thing. If they figure out how to stop that then he can moving to the ticketing counter or the loading zone. Why don’t we make scanners for these other areas too? If you stop those potential targets then they will go anywhere a crowd will gather, ie. grocery stores, malls sporting events, hotels, conference centers… and on and on. People are so used to reacting to everything by fear that they lose their common sense.

But a ProPublica/PBS NewsHour investigation [2] this year detailed how the TSA had glossed over cancer concerns [3] about one kind of scanner that uses X-rays. In independent, peer-reviewed studies, radiation experts concluded that the X-ray scanner could cause six to 100 airline passengers each year to develop cancer.

Hogwash. The idea that you can extrapolate the LNT (linear no threshold model) to calculate a dose response from such a miniscule amount of ionizing radiation is laughable. If the risk was scalable in the way the LNT suggests, and there is no epidemiological data to support it, there would several hundred excess cancers per 100,000 just from commercial aviation.

I realize the author is looking to add some punch to his story, but try and keep the fear mongering to dull minimum please.

In California we are looking forward (we hope) to high-speed rail service between major cities.  Even just an ordinary train is a pleasant way to travel. as I discovered on a recent trip to Portland.  You are not trapped in your seat.  You can walk around, buy snacks or be served a full meal in a dining car.  You can sit in the observation car, take pictures of the passing scenery, and, as I did, make a new friend.  If you want to sleep you can expand your seat into a bed and the attendant will provide you with a pillow.  No one examines you or your luggage.

There is a downside: trains don’t run as frequently as airplanes and if your trip is long, you may have to stay in a motel overnight if the train doesn’t have roomettes.  In 1954 I traveled from LA to NY in a train with roomettes.  It took three days, and I loved every minute of it.  If that kind of transportation were available today I would take it in an eyeblink.

I’ve never been scanned, always “opt-out.” I’ve always been treated courteously during the pat down, though flying is not exactly a wonderful experience anymore, either getting on or during.

Dear Mr. Grabell,

After witnessing your performance on CNN, I realized that your level of knowledge on matters related radiation and radiation safety is completely limited to and colored by the information provided by people you BELIEVE to be telling you the truth.  And those people are the folks in the anti-nuclear camp who will tell you that “there is no safe level of radiation.”

HOGWASH.  You get 500 to 1000 times more radiation EVERY DAY just walking around town in the U.S.

If you and your brethren have any credibility whatsoever on the matter of radiation exposures, you need to ban flying altogether if you’re going to make the argument to ban scanners.  You’ll also need to ban BREATHING, and all forms of medical x-ray use.

P.S. The EU has NOT banned scanners.  The EU has placed a moratorium on the use of scanners until such time that a “study” of their safety is performed.  As with the EU’s earlier conclusion this year that water does not prevent dehydration, I’m not going to view any politically motivated “scientific” study performed by the EU with any weight.

yes - look at this video report on the scanners and the chances of skin damage.  we also touch on the evaluation criteria of “Effective Dose”

What’s up with IMSC?
The following is a statement taken directly from the US House of Representatives Joint Majority Staff report dated November 16, 2011…..“The TSA has a vital and important mission, critical to the security of the traveling public. It is the Government’s responsibility, however, to DIRECT THE AGENCIES MISSION AND PREVENT CUMBERSOME BUREAUCRACY FROM INHIBITING THE TSA’S ABILITY TO ADDRESS AND ADAPT TO CHANGING SECURITY NEEDS”
It could’nt be any clearer that Congress is spearheading the campaign to adopt widespread Explosive Trace Technology in our nation. What some may not realize is that our product is the best and probably the only solution for their needs and mandate. The reasons are as follows:

>RADIOACTIVE SOURCE…..Implant Science’s B220 product is the only product that does not have a radioactive source. Our competitors Morpho and Smiths Detection products contain a radioactive source. The European Union has banned products containing radiation. Considering the uproar in the US about the radiation in the scanners, it is very doubtful that the TDA would adopt another product for use that contained radiation.

>CLEAR DOWN TIME…..Implant Sciences B220 clears down in a matter of seconds. While Smith Detection’s and Morpho"s ETD products seem to come close to the clear down time, this is just a small part of the entire picture.

>DECONTAMINATION…..The Implant Science’s B220 is the ONLY product that decontaminates itself. Smiths Detection and Morpho do not have the proprietary technology to decontaminate itself. Their product can take hours or even days to do this. The TSA related this information to Glen. This is very important because unless the machine is decontaminated fully after each use, the next person in line to be checked will be shown to have the same results as the previous person. It is easy to see how there would be the possibility of false positives or false negatives. This is definitely not a good position to be in when using the competitors products.

>CALIBRATION…..The Implant Sciences B220 calibrates itself. The Morpho and Smith Detection products take human beings and machines to calibrate. This is a waste of man hours and could necessitate the hiring of more personnel. If you remember one of the RFP’s that the Dept. of Homeland Security issued mentioned that the product would not require the hiring of additional TSA employees.

>LOW COST OF CONSUMABLES….. The average cost of consumables for each of our competitor’s technology, per machine, is estimated to be $10,000 a year. Our cost of consumables for the B220 is estimated at less than $1,000 a year per machine. The calibration traps ,ALONE, for the Morpho product cost $1 each. Multiply that by each passenger that would be screened by the product in a years time and you can see why the cost of consumables using their product adds up fast. Considering the amount of waste that was documented by Congress, It would be an excellent bet that the TSA would not want Congress to report this waste in their next report.

Implant Sciences Corp.

To the one who said: “HOGWASH. You get 500 to 1000 times more radiation EVERY DAY just walking
around town in the U.S.”
And too many instances of radiation being poured on us from every side you are blind if you don’t see it adding up. Doctors, dentists, scanners in public offices as well as airplanes….are you blind to reality?? How much can YOU take of radiation? Are you a different species that is not human like US? You do sound like one of the wicked ETs that want to kill us off to take this earth. I wonder, does radiation make you stronger? Or do you have a secret way of shielding your people from it?

Best headline of the year, already!

This stops the terrorists with bombs shoved up their rectums right?  Well I guess that’s alright then.  I like how people off cancer like “eh, so we’ll all die of cancer eventually!”

Brian Montgomery

Jan. 2, 2012, 9:34 p.m.

As a retired airline pilot I can assure you that the whole TSA passenger screening project is an absolute charade originally intended to provide a facade of security to passengers that has now morphed into a self-sustaining boondoggle.

The security structure on the aircraft side of the terminal window is, in reality if not in theory, virtually non-existent. The airline services are provided by the cheapest labor available not the most trusted. For example, on one occasion I left the aircraft in order to go to our operations area - I could not find one person in the proximity of the aircraft who spoke enough English to give me directions - and this was in the US! Everyday hundreds or un-inspected vehicles enter the airport secure area because examining each one thoroughly would be too labor intensive and expensive.

It is really ironic to be told that, as a pilot, you cannot take a knife to work when there is a crash-axe fitted in the cockpit of the aircraft and instantly available, by Federal regulation!!

In agreement with “WillHarper” in the first post of these comments - I drive and relax en-route whenever it is possible. I would love to travel by train but I suspect the TSA will get its tentacles wrapped around the train service too.

“what do you suggest? Doing nothing?  Thank you but I’ll comfort myself in thinking that the ‘not knowing’ on behalf of the jihaddiots is some deterence!”  and “Choking on peanut butter is a far greater risk! “

Mr. Baker, chocking on peanut butter and getting cancer are far greater risks than being killed by a terrorist. 

I agree with Mr. Montgomery - as a frequent traveler, I know that the whole security thing is a charade.  And any other frequent business traveler will tell you the same.  Unfortunately, we don’t have the option of driving across country.

So, against:
- Might cause cancer
- Doesn’t detect anything useful
- Expensive
- Naked pictures
- Ignores TSA employees as potential threats

- Radiation damage isn’t cumulative (except that it, you know, is)
- Extra deaths by cancer aren’t a big deal
- Something must be done and this happens to be something
- Anybody against the scanners can be branded as supporting terrorism

Did I miss anything?  Other than the fact that the whole setup seems designed more for intimidation than security, I mean.

Yes, John, you missed the enormous profit motive in this security theatre in your “For” column benefiting: Chernoff’s Rapiscan & Co.

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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