Journalism in the Public Interest

Senator Seeks Answers on X-Ray Body Scanners

In letters to the Transportation Security Administration, Senator Susan Collins asked why the agency backed off its promise to conduct a new safety study of the X-ray machines, and recommended larger signs to advise pregnant women they can request a pat-down instead.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins questioned the TSA over its decision to back away from a promise to study the health effects of airport body scanners. (Getty Images file photo by Brendan Smialowski)

The top Republican on the Senate homeland security committee is seeking answers after the head of the Transportation Security Administration backed off a promise to study the health effects of the X-ray body scanners used at airports.

In a letter sent Wednesday to TSA administrator John Pistole, Senator Susan Collins of Maine said she was “disappointed” to hear the news, especially after the European Commission prohibited such scanners because of concerns that the radiation emitted by the machines could lead to cancer.

In a second letter, Collins asked the TSA to place larger signs at checkpoints with X-ray scanners advising travelers, particularly pregnant women, about the radiation and the option of undergoing a pat-down instead. “I am disappointed that this simple precaution has not yet occurred,” the senator wrote.

Currently, checkpoints have an 11-by-14-inch sign in front of the machine that states the screening is optional but emphasizes the images the machines produce rather than any possible health risks. Passengers often have a few seconds to read the print before being flagged to walk through the scanner.

Asked to comment, a TSA spokesman wrote in an email that the agency “will respond directly to Senator Collins to address her questions.”

The letters come three weeks after a Senate hearing, in which lawmakers asked questions about a ProPublica investigation, conducted in conjunction with the PBS NewsHour, of the potential health risks of the X-ray scanners. At the hearing, Pistole agreed to a request from Collins to conduct a new independent study of the scanners.

At another Senate hearing a week later, Pistole said he had just received a draft report by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general that might render a new study unnecessary.

The full report has not been released. A summary obtained by ProPublica said that the inspector general found the radiation was within industry standards. But it contained several recommendations for the TSA to ensure that inspections and training are completed.

“My understanding is that the IG report will examine whether or not TSA is doing an adequate job of inspecting, maintaining and operating [the body-scanner] machines,” Senator Collins wrote in her letter. “This is not the same as conducting an independent study on the health effects of those [scanning] machines emitting ionizing radiation.”

The TSA uses two types of body scanners. An X-ray machine, also known as a backscatter, looks like two large blue boxes and emits extremely low levels of ionizing radiation, a form of energy which strips electrons from atoms and has been shown to cause cancer. The other machine, known as the millimeter-wave scanner, looks like a round phone booth and uses radio waves, which have not been linked to cancer.

In maintaining that the machines are safe, Pistole has pointed to studies the TSA commissioned with the Food and Drug Administration, the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and the Army Public Health Command.

Those tests show that the radiation emitted from the backscatter is equivalent to the naturally-occurring radiation received in about two or three minutes of flying at altitude.

But two peer-reviewed research papers concluded that because the TSA is planning widespread use of the scanners, such trivial amounts could lead to additional cancer cases. One paper, written by Rebecca Smith-Bindman, a radiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, estimated that the backscatters would lead to six cancers over the course of a lifetime among the approximately 100 million people who fly every year. Another paper, by David Brenner, director of Columbia University’s Center for Radiological Research, reached a higher number – potentially 100 additional cancers every year.

Smith-Bindman concluded that “there is no significant threat of radiation from the scans,” given that the same 100 million people would develop 40 million cancers over the course of their lifetimes. In this large pool, it would be impossible to link specific cancer cases from cumulative exposure to the backscatter machines.

At least the EU is coming to its senses. Neither the millimeter wave nor the backscatter x-ray devices have been independently tested and privacy concerns abound. The Rapi-Scan x-ray units also still produce a naked image and potentially pose a cancer risk, particularly if malfunctioning and left in service. The scanner safety has been questioned by many academic and scientific groups and the images are far more graphic than TSA will admit.

When the scanners were put into service in November TSA contended that the images were cartoonish and according to Blogger Bob at TSA could be on the cover of Readers Digest or shown to children. Just last week Denver TSA area director Pat Ahlstrom, speaking on the implementation of the privacy software said of the scans up until now “They were graphic, no doubt about it,” So the TSA story about these being “chalk outlines” was clearly a lie being used to pacify travelers and conceal the fact they were in fact being digitally strip searched. The EPIC lawsuit revealed that TSA has stored over 2,000 images and TSA has acknowledged this, claiming they were “volunteers”. So there are thousands of nude images of passengers being stored in TSA computers without their knowledge.

TSA also minimizes the fact that the privacy software is only available on the L3 MMW scanners and is not available on the Rapi-Scan x-ray scanners which will continue to produce nude images for the foreseeable future. Nor is there any proof that the naked image won’t still be available using the existing software. They have also neglected to inform passengers that most of these very graphic nude images are viewed by male screeners. TSA has difficulty attracting female screeners and those they have are put into service at the checkpoint to conduct pat downs. Travelers prefer to ignore the fact that the nude image of their wives and daughters are being viewed by male screeners.

When several Universities and a team of Radiologists expressed concern over the radiation exposure and lack of independent testing, TSA refused to allow third party testing and instead sent the manufacturers test data from 2008 to a University of California professor, Rebecca Smith-Bindman, whom they paid to “confirm” the flawed results. When errors in the original calculations by contract workers were revealed in March, TSA promised to perform new radiation testing on the scanners, none of which has been done to date

Even the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has challenged the validity of the TSA test results and Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, who participated in the original testing, disputed TSA’s claim that they deemed these safe. NIST also indicated that operators could be harmed by prolonged exposure to x-ray radiation and recommended that anyone working near the scanners wear a dosimeter and be checked for radiation exposure. When AFGE asked that screeners be allowed to wear Union supplied dosimeters TSA refused to permit their use.

It is disturbing that a government agency would sacrifice passenger privacy and put their health at risk to protect private manufacturers’ profits. There is clearly an implication of corruption in the deployment of the scanners which bears further investigation by Congress.

So, basicly, Susan Collins is an idiot.

Just as supposedly every passenger is at some risk of terrorist attack, if every passenger were also subject to a backscatter screening, then the actual risk of deaths by cancer means the machines are “deadlier than the terrorists.” (-Bruce Schneier)

Because some bad men attacked us ten years ago, we created a nanny security state in which poorly trained bottom rung employees of a vast security apparatus are given god-like powers over those poor schlubs who find themselves in need of a plane ride.

Nothing degrades this nation more than the cowardly ways in which we responded to a one-day flurry of terror. Out of fear of terrorism, we opened the doors wide to fascism.

DHS is nothing more than a conduit through which Congress shovels money to security contractors and the military-industrial complex.

Assuming the radiation released by these scanners can be damaging to health, it does no good to opt out if you will be required (as I was) to stand next to the scanner for 5-10 minutes awaiting pat down.  The radiation being released is not limited to just the area where you stand for your picture.  A lot more information needs to be presented to the public before this continues.

If the scanners were safe, the TSA wouldn’t be putting up so many road blocks to having them independently tested.

1.  “No Proof TSA Scanners Are Safe” written by a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner:

2.  Interview of Professor Emeritus of Biochemistry, Dr. John Sedat, and Professor of Physics, Dr. Peter Rez, on their concerns and analysis of the airport scanners:

Judith, I, too, was forced to stand right beside the x-ray box and to wait—and wait, and wait, and wait—while dozens of TSA clerks were standing around doing nothing.  It was clearly punishment for my declining to go through the scanner.  This was back in September 2010, the last flight of my life, just before the gropefests were implemented nationwide.

The TSA is a criminal, out-of-control agency that abuses people with impunity.  It hasn’t caught or thwarted a single potential attacker in its multi-billion-dollar history.

Pistole and Napolitano are its sick, twisted ringleaders. They should be fired — after being forced to go through a few gropes themselves — and the entire agency dismantled.

But I’m not holding my breath. Congress is craven, the president clueless (after all, his wife and children don’t have to get stripped or groped), and half the population willfully ignorant.

A colleague and I have kept track of accounts of abuse for the past 20 months, and they are legion:

Empirical evidence, risk assessment, statistical analysis, security experts, logic — none of it matters to the United Sheeple of America. “The Terrorists! The Terrorists Are Everywhere!”

So many cowards and paranoiacs. They won’t be happy until Uncle Sam is sticking his fingers up their a**es.

To TSA I would gladly say: do the work instead of shifting the discomfort to a machine. If you support the propagation and inflation of human indignity than look the person in the eye as you pat them down. Taking the human element out of the ‘security’ process is just as bad as using drones to kill at a distance. Own the sacrifice you have to make.

Petra Lynn Hofmann

Nov. 26, 2011, 7:45 a.m.

If the scanners in use were as non-revealing as claimed, then the displays would be placed where passengers could see what they revealed. For instance, passengers can viewed the images of carrying on bags as they travel through the x-ray tunnel. IMHO, the reason we can’t see the scanner results is that they are quite revealing and would cause most passengers to strongly object to their use.

For my part, after traveling every week for almost two years, I have subject myself to a full-body pat down rather than be x-rayed twice a week.

The new paradigm is all flyers are criminals until proven innocent.

As a former Maine resident that use to vote for both Olympia Snow and Susan Collins because they were considered “liberal” or “moderate” Republicans I am totally disgusted with both of them.  They consistently voted to approve the nominations of the most corporatist and anti-women Supreme Court ever.  No matter what Susan Collins does from this point going forward she has repeatedly sold out to the increasingly fanatical Republican base and for that I hope she loses the next election. 

I do hope she is successful in her dog and pony show but it will be in spite of her increasingly conservative agenda not because of it.

Lisa thank for putting it so succinctly. I wholeheartedly second everything you have written.

Petra, I’ve been thinking that the TSA could rake in a ton of money by not just showing, but selling prints of the scan, like the pictures amusement parks snap of you on roller coasters.  Imagine what a fratboy would pay for a semi-nude X-Ray outline of himself on vacation.  Imagine the cottage industry in lewd metallized tattoos!

I agree, though, that this criminalization has to stop.  I’ve stopped flying (and am thankfully in a position that doesn’t require travel), because I’m not going to spend money to be treated like a felon.  That goes double when I’m supposed to be treated that way by people who, themselves, have undergone no screening whatsoever and have free run of sensitive facilities.

And that goes triple when every audit of the TSA has proven them utterly impotent in stopping even the most blatant attempt to sneak something past them, proving that this spectacle is doing precisely “squat” for our actual safety.

John, I, too, have stopped flying, even though I love travel more than I can say.  I won’t put up with the gross abuse and violation by the TSA.  Too bad so many of my fellow citizens are just fine with it.

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.

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