Journalism in the Public Interest

TSA Puts Off Safety Study of X-ray Body Scanners

After promising an independent evaluation of X-ray body scanners, the head of the TSA now says he’ll put it off pending an inspector general report on the machines.


A screenshot of an explainer video from the Transportation Security Administration.

The head of the Transportation Security Administration has backed off a public commitment to conduct a new independent study of X-ray body scanners used at airport security lanes around the country.

Earlier this month, a ProPublica/PBS NewsHour investigation found that the TSA had glossed over research that the X-ray scanners could lead to a small number of cancer cases. The scanners emit low levels of ionizing radiation, which has been shown to damage DNA. In addition, several safety reviewers who initially advised the government on the scanners said they had concerns about the machines being used, as they are today, on millions of airline passengers.

At a Senate hearing after the story ran, TSA Administrator John Pistole agreed to a request by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, to conduct a new independent study of the health effects of the X-ray scanners, also known as backscatters.

But at a Senate hearing of a different committee last week, Pistole said he had since received a draft report on the machines by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general, or IG, that might render the independent study unnecessary.

“My strong belief is those types of machines are still completely safe,” Pistole said. “If the determination is that this IG study is not sufficient, then I will look at still yet another additional study.”

According to a summary obtained by ProPublica, the inspector general concluded the machines are within industry standards for radiation exposure limits. But the summary also suggests the report focuses mostly on how the TSA monitors and maintains the machines. The full report won’t be released for several weeks.

“I hope the Obama administration is not backing away from an independent study of the health effects of these radiation-emitting machines,” Collins said in a statement to ProPublica. “What I asked for — and what the administrator committed to — was an independent study on the health effects of [the] machines, not just a study on whether TSA is doing an adequate job of inspecting, maintaining and operating” them.

The inspector general’s report calls on the TSA to ensure that radiation surveys are conducted for unintended emissions, that calibrations are consistently documented and that airport screeners complete annual radiation safety training. The inspector general also advised the agency to determine how much on-the-job training is needed for screeners who operate the backscatters and to ensure that accidental radiation overdoses are properly reported.

It’s unclear whether the recommendations resulted from any problems found during the investigation, or are general reminders about best practices. It’s also unclear whether investigators measured the radiation doses from the machines themselves or relied on inspections conducted by the manufacturer.

The TSA uses two types of body scanners. With the backscatter machines that have been the focus of health concerns, a passenger stands between two large blue boxes and is scanned with a pencil X-ray beam that moves rapidly left to right and up and down the body. With the other kind of scanner, called a millimeter-wave machine, a passenger enters a chamber that looks like a round phone booth and is scanned with a form of low-energy radio waves, which do not strip electrons from atoms and have not been shown to cause cancer.

In recent years, the TSA has commissioned tests of the X-ray scanners by the Food and Drug Administration and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. In addition, survey teams from the Army Public Health Command visit airports to check the machines.

Those tests have all shown that the X-ray scanners emit extremely low levels of radiation, equivalent to the radiation received in a few minutes of flying. But the tests haven’t doused questions from some outside radiation experts about why the TSA doesn’t use only the millimeter-wave machines, which the agency also deems highly effective.

The European Union on Monday prohibited the use of X-ray body scanners in European airports “in order not to risk jeopardizing citizens’ health and safety.”

But others have pointed to problems with millimeter-wave machines. Germany announced earlier this year that it would forgo the machines after concluding that they produced too many false positives.

There are currently 500 body scanners, split about evenly between the two technologies, deployed in airports. The TSA plans to deploy 1,275 backscatter and millimeter-wave scanners covering more than half its security lanes by the end of 2012 and 1,800 covering nearly all lanes by 2014.

Yesterday’s paper (can’t remember if it was WSJ, NYT or Financial TImes) noted that Europe had banned Xray scanners.

Do you suppose the ones our government refuses to ‘study’ are the same?

If so, it would be consistent with the administration’s other ignoring (not to be confused with ignorant) real problems in favor of ‘compromise’ or ‘delay’.

What are the long-term effects? What are the effects on business travelers who are in and out of airports every week? How much exposure is too much?

Michael Chertoff, the skeletor zombie that formerly headed Homeland Security, has now become a multimillionaire in the private enterprise of guess what?...Selling million dollar plus scanners to the TSA after convincing (bribing) certain government officials that we needed them. Goodbye tax dollars. Congressional insider trading on scan machine was no doubt rampant pirior to Congressional approval on the scanner purchase.
Oncologists will also reap a windfall from these offensive and dangerous machines so they can perform their cut, poison and burn cancer treatment, (surgery,chemo, and more radiation) which is called “successful” if the patient can survive 5 years of the barbarous procedure. Money!

Quote:  Pistole said he had since received a draft report on the machines by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general, or IG, that might render the independent study unnecessary.

“My strong belief is those types of machines are still completely safe,” Pistole said.

End quote.

Me, I don’t like reading that; the final quote suggests that the IG study is going to validate Pistole’s opinion/hope/driver, and for that reason and that reason alone he is not going to run the risk of an independent review.

The question becomes:  Was the IG study conducted “independently” and with as many “watching eyes” as the TSA’s would have been?

I recently refused to be the guinea pig for one of these machines at Newark Airport.  As a result, I had a “public frisking” in which I was ordered around like a criminal, and had my midriff exposed while a grumpy TSA agent performed her “examination.” Next time, I’ll ask for privacy, and a 3rd party to be present.

This is what it comes to - and the TSA now says no safety study is required—laughable!

The scanners emit low levels of ionizing radiation, which has been shown to damage DNA.

DNA has the ability to repair itself and low level ionizing radiation HAS NEVER been demonstrated to cause any increased mortality, let alone cancer.

To put this into further perspective, the Health Physics Society estimates a dose of 0.005 mrems from a backscatter x-ray.  This is the equivalent of sleeping next to someone for one evening, eating one half of a banana or using a CRT monitor for 20 years,

Would not theses scanners be better in a hospital setting?

They already know how dangerous these machines are. 
Since 1998…... Government covers up Cancer Deaths from Airport Body Scanners. Near 100 Per Year

Re: Sylvain Metz - how much is too much?

ANY non-medically-necessary amount of radiation is too much.

Going through LAX I refused the scan, then told the kid agents that you guys are exposed to RADIATION daily. You’re going to die. He freaked out on his bosses, it was funny.

@Mike H…..

I agree that the low level stuff has questionable effect. However,

the Columbia U folks have some quarrel about the exact dose these backscatter imagers deliver, and the variation of the effect across different age groups:


What?!? The rabble wishes to know how we’re killing them? To Hell with them! They don’t need to know how we’re radiating them. They need to learn how to obey us without question. After all, we’re there for their safety. How dare they think we’re harm them. We’re the government and we’re here to help. And if you don’t think so than you must be a terrorist.

Both the NIST and Johns Hopkins told the TSA that the backscatter machines were not shielded and that persons standing within the radiation overshoot area may be exposed to excessive levels of radiation. This information was obtained via an FOIA that was requested by the Electronic Privacy Information Center. You can find it by searching their website.  Also, both organizations issued statements that they were never asked to verify the safety of the machines. Testing that was done on the machines by these independent organizations was not done in the production environment, but were conducted at the manufacturer’s location on a non-production model, rumored to have been cobbled together with spare parts.

Ionizing radiation is also being directed into your eyes and private parts.  Why does my dentist cover my chest with a lead shield when taking a dental xray, but the airport scanners xray my entire body “skin deep”?  Also, the radiation dose is CONCENTRATED into the skin.  All of those comparisons about the dose being equivalent to flying for a few minutes on an airport refer to radiation applied to your full body mass.  Your skin is being hammered by radiation.. hello skin cancer!

Why does this not surprise me?
The TSA has a memo from another one of Barry Hussein’s marxist agencies saying These X-ray machines are safe!
Ha Ha Ha

“Those tests have all shown that the X-ray scanners emit extremely low levels of radiation, equivalent to the radiation received in a few minutes of flying.”
They are still comparing apples with oranges. Cosmic radiation is omnidirectional, and affects the entire body volume. The backscatter x-ray device emits a directional beam that only affects the skin. This means that a possible ionizing impact per volume of tissue is MUCH higher in the scanner than during flight at altitude, if -as they claim- the absolute dose is equivalent. The TSA is misleading the passengers.
And even if these skin scans were harmless, I don’t trust the average TSA agent (I “experience” these people every week, and know what I’m talking about) to be able to recognize malfunctions, or perform a proper calibration.

The Constitution protects us from illegal search and seizure.
Something Homeland Security and the People have forgotten
If you are worried about getting cancer from screening, boycott flying.
If you want to make a statement and stop this craziness EVERYBODY
must boycott flying for one day.  Nothing speaks louder in our free market economy.  Money talks and BS walks!

OMFG government can die.  How can this kind of garbage still occur?  TSA should be burned to the ground as well as the people who decided to fill their coffers with their profits.





- Chertoff

see how your gov. loves you?

william ronald

Nov. 16, 2011, 3:15 p.m.

Funny listening to these comments. I am a standby passenger which means if I can’t get on a plane, I have to go through the entire security process. I watched, I KID YOU NOT, EVERY single person go through that machine all day long! THAT equates to thousands of dumb stupid people who listen to their GOVERNMENT! I was the ONLY person who refused. I stayed in that airport for 14 hours watching, it was a site for sore eyes!

@ DrBobNM

Even at 20 times, the dose is negligible ... the equivalent of eating 10 bananas.

I goofed with the CRT equivalent. It should be 2 weeks .. not 20 years.

@Mike H - re:  “DNA has the ability to repair itself”

What a horrible argument; if that were universally true, then cancer would be science fiction, would it not?

I work with a number of PhD’s in Physics at a company that works with various forms of radiation.  Our Chief Scientist will NOT go through these machines.  As some others have mentioned, the myth that it is the same radiation one receives flying on a plane is not an accurate portrayal of what happens in the back scatter.  The radiation is concentrated on the surfaces making the amount of radiation recieved by cells in those areas much higher than they would receive if generally presented to the entire body structure.  I travel quite a bit.  Ironically, though I knew these “death ray machines” were coming (thank you Chertoff), I didn’t know they had been deployed and inadvertantly went through one.  I chuckle that my first (and last) nudie picture was taken at McCarren in Las Vegas.  I have had numerous pat downs since.  I would recommend, since we never know the professional level of the examiner, that unless you are going to miss the flight time wise, ask for a private examining room.

My experience is that they make you wait and wait if you opt out.  Yell out your choice loudly to intimidate you and then leave you waiting more times than not right in the traffic so you disrupt other passengers who are going through the beast.

There is a reason recent reports show that already TSA employees who work with the DRM’s are reporting cancer at an increased rate.  Only takes one ray hitting one cell wrong—low incidence?  If you are the one who gets cancer it is 100% for you.

For some reason knowing that war and security are now profit centers for Corporate America doesn’t make me feel the least bit safer…in fact, every act of aggression and terror incident at home or abroad makes a little voice whisper “Is it real?  Or did somebody arrange it or allow it to happen for the money it would bring them in sales of their product or services?” in the back of my mind.

It’s ok. I wasn’t using the 4th amendment anyway. So why not give us all cancer too?

It was reported today that GM Bailout costs are double what the government promised.  The airport scanner implementation is very political just like the auto manufacturer bailouts. Any doubt the radiation exposure from their scanners should be any different?  What they promise is not good enough!  Independent third party testing was never performed and adequate controls and zero oversight are not in place. 

Radiation exposure is cumulative.  It all adds up folks.  This a very reckless use of ionizing radiation.  You should avoid any man-made sources including those sometimes indicated by medical professionals.  At least with medical usage, the health professionals are making the case of risk vs. patient benefit and then highly trained technicians are operating the devices.

retired health physicist

derfel cadarn

Nov. 16, 2011, 4:41 p.m.

All the progressives believe that Europe is just so wonderful. It appears that these so wonderful examples the left would love for us to emulate have just BANNED the use of backscatter x-ray devices due to concerns over radiation exposure. This and allowing the sale of raw milk products is the only thing that America should emulate. How’s all that woderfulness working out for you now?

Douglas Wicks

Nov. 16, 2011, 4:45 p.m.

These scanners emit far little x ray exposure than flying on the plane. in fact once you fly at 35000 ft for 5 minutes you have surpassed the x ray exposure of the device.

Worried about x rays-don’t fly

why is there no accountability for anyone in the Obama administration? everyday this communist pig destroys America a little bit more. shame on the congress for not stopping him and calling for his impeachment!

Wake up America before its too late!!!!!!!

Sheesh…did Obama create the monsters of Homeland Security or the TSA?  Do you think the Republicans in Congress would permit Obama to disband or weaken them?

If you’re going to disguise underhanded political attacks as concern for the public safety, be a little more subtle about it - and do maintain an awareness of history.

Oh so recent history.

The govt is well-aware of the risks of these machines - - see open letter from UCSF.

In fact European govts have refused to use them because they are not safe.

Never go thru, take the patdown.  If we all opted out the machines would be gone in 10 days.  Are we men or sheep?
Practice this simple act of civil disobediance.
The patdowns are done by the most professional members of the TSA.

@Douglas Wicks - Did you read that straight out of your government-supplied literature?  Directed ionizing radiation into your skin is VERY different from background radiation across your full body volume.  The truth of the matter is that you are taking in a much higher dose than the government and the private scanner companies want you to know.  We won’t find out how bad it is until several years from now when people start showing symptoms of cancer.

Charles Seitz

Nov. 16, 2011, 5:41 p.m.

What no one who claims these machines are safe ever seems to account for is the fact that the entire dose of radiation is absorbed by the first few mm of the skin, not by the whole body. If you do the radiation exposure calculation and account for the mass of the entire body, it doesn’t look so bad. If you instead look at only the portion of the body that is absorbing the X-rays, it’s a bad, bad thing. These machines have the potential to greatly increase the rates of skin and breast cancers among the flying public, if not other types of cancers as well.

And then let’s look at the results. Have any bombs, guns, grenades, or other suicide plot devices been discovered on the millions of passengers who have walked through these machines? The answer is no, no terrorist plots have been uncovered and prevented by the use of these machines. The TSA and DHS will say that’s because terrorists won’t try to get through security now thanks to the machines and enhanced pat downs, but you can’t prove a negative, so their argument is invalid.

Not only do these machines need to go away, so does the entire TSA. It serves no valid purpose that private companies cannot do faster, better, and cheaper than the government.

So, if these machines are SO safe, then once a day, Pistole, Napolitano and both Obamas need to walk through one, once a day, every day. 

Obama may not have created Homeland Insecurity, but he has done NOTHING to eliminate either the office or airport scanners. Infact, the more the people are against something, the more he seems to sit back with that smirk and does the exact opposite. We can only HOPE that we’ll be seeing he and his cronies doing the perp walk in the very near future, and before they can do more harm.

BTW, I’m NOT a republican….....

I simply don’t fly anymore because of the machines AND the pat downs.  I refuse to accept the airport as a “constitution-free” zone, and bleet like a sheep proudly as my rights (and possibly my health) are being minimalized.

Ok so for those you who don’t know workers at Nuclear power plants are limited to 5 rem per year that is 5000 mrem.  1 scan is 0.005 mrem. That means to reach the federal limit for radiation workers, who are trained to reduce their exposure, you would have to be scanned 1 MILLION times in a year or 2740 time a day or 114 times an hour.  Now for those people working around them what is the exposure? We know what the exposure to the people in the machine is but what about shielding on the other sides.  What about those passing by the machines?  No one has asked that question.

O.K. Here’s the part EVERYONE seems to gloss over…“ensure that accidental radiation overdoses are properly reported.” If this machine is capable of accidental overdoses of radiation, IT IS NOT SAFE!!! If one accident is reported, it is one too many. Interesting this comes a day after the UK banned them. They obviously know something that our government is not telling us. Where’s that “transparency” Obummer? Oh, I get it, transparent x-rays, that’s what he was talking about. I’m so stupid.

“Sheesh…did Obama create the monsters of Homeland Security or the TSA?”

As a matter of fact, it was his crony Democrats in congress who created the “special laws” that the TSA is now using against us. “Conflict of interest” anyone?

The Obama regime is killing people just to keep their friends wealthy.

Worst. President. Ever.


TSA is nothing more than a Bush-era jobs program for the chronically unemployed.

Does anyone else have a problem with TSA bottom-feeders denying Constitutional Rights under the color of law?

And I’m sure this has nothing to do with the heavy lobbying done by the makers of the X-Ray scanners…

@dredd - polemics aside, what would your response have been after the shoe and underwear bombers?

Say “Oh, well!”, do nothing, and green-light al Qaida et al to refine their techniques?

lollll…and if you think Obama is the worst ever, you must have been born on January 20th, 2009 - ‘cuz you way missed a doozy.

A number of people have made some very weird comments. First, any radiation that is not absolutely necessary to preserve your life is too much. Then there is the concept that why are we having to go through the machines to begin with? We are not criminals or terrorist. The government needs to profile the terrorist and establish a screening procedure that does not include evey single person. One good way to do some of this would be to allow people to go through a security check and obtain a card indicating they were not a threat. You present your card and get on the plane. No radiation, no pat down, no violation of your rights. If on the other hand you are a Muslim, then you get the works. They are the only ones who like to kill innocent people in the air.

Then there is the concept that people have mentioned,  “if you don’t like the security, then don’t fly”. I don’t think that is the spirit of the constitution. We should be able to do what we desire without the government constantly bothering us. In addition, flying is necessary to live in the US or just about anywhere. So restricting our right to fly is restricting trade, freedom, etc. Then there is the fact the TSA in bothering people on trains, the highways and just about anywhere. Enough is enough, lets take the government back.

Yet another political decision by the Obama Administration.  He does not want to appear soft on the terrorism threat so he will delay this until after the November 2012 elections.  Anything so the Commander in Grief can do anything to help secure his re-election.  Pathetic.

Yet another lie by Pistole and TSA. He has repeatedly lied and made promises to Congress and then reneged on them.

He has said the TSA would stop groping children in January, repeated it again in April, and yet again in July and most recently in October and yet thousands of children continue to be assaulted by TSA screeners.

If these scanners are so safe that then why are they so aggressively blocking independent testing? Their obsession with keeping the safety information secret indicates that there is some danger that TSA does not want exposed.

A certification by the agency’s own Inspector General does not qualify as a reputable, independent source. That is only TSA investigating TSA and concluding that these are safe.

An interesting revelation is that their own IG is recommending “strict reporting” of “accidental overdoses of radiation”. This is the first time that TSA admitted that these machines do malfunction and overdose passengers with radiation. Unfortunately the extent of those overdoes will not be discovered until a passenger is badly burned while in the scanner.

They cite the Johns Hopkins study as certifying them safe, yet the researchers on that project have said publicly that they did not deem these safe. NIST who participated in the FDA study reported potentially dangerous levels of radiation and recommended that screeners wear dosimeters. TSA refused requests allowing screeners to wear dosimeters while continuing to expose them to potentially harmful radiation.

This is a corrupt agency that is being protected by Peter King of NY, who chairs the DHS Oversight Committee. Many of the security companies, including the scanner manufacturers, contribute to his campaign fund and several members of his family do business with these firms. As long as he remains in office, TSA has a friend on the inside, thwarting effort of Congress to reform this agency.

YES we can!!

“My experience is that they make you wait and wait if you opt out.  Yell out your choice loudly to intimidate you and then leave you waiting more times than not right in the traffic so you disrupt other passengers who are going through the beast.”

I’ve found the unemotional conversation with the TSA agent as to why “opt out” causes them so much angst is a good play. They’re usually shamed by their own hostility. Another good play is to answer “why are you opting out?” with “lack of certified radiologists operating emitting devices.” They’ll look at you with exasperation until you say “radiation,” which they apparently are practiced at spelling.

Seems pretty evident that TSA Administrator John Pistole has the intellectual equivalence of a Big Mac.

When they ask why you are opting out, simply state health concerns.
If you want to have fun ask if they are aware of the cancer clusters appearing in TSA workers.
Are we men or are we sheep.
This is a patriotic act, well worth holding up the line.
Holding up the line is the point…..
If we all did it, the machines would be gone.
Remember agent orange wasnt bad for you either.

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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