Journalism in the Public Interest

TSA to Commission Independent Study of X-Ray Body Scanners

The Transportation Security Administration will have the National Academy of Sciences study the health effects of X-ray body scanners used in airports. But how much will the study reveal?

The Transportation Security Administration will have the National Academy of Sciences study the health effects of X-ray body scanners used in airports. (David McNew/Getty Images)

Following months of congressional pressure, the Transportation Security Administration has agreed to contract with the National Academy of Sciences to study the health effects of the agency's X-ray body scanners. But it is unclear if the academy will conduct its own tests of the scanners or merely review previous studies.

The machines, known as backscatters, were installed in airports nationwide after the failed underwear bombing on Christmas Day 2009 to screen passengers for explosives and other nonmetallic weapons. But they have been criticized by some prominent scientists because they expose the public to a small amount of ionizing radiation, a form of energy that can cause cancer.

The scanners were the subject of a 2011 ProPublica series, which found that the TSA 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.

The TSA maintains that the backscatters are safe and that they emit a low dose of X-rays equivalent to the radiation a passenger would receive in two minutes of flying at typical cruising altitude.

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the top Republican on the Senate homeland security committee, introduced a bill mandating such a test earlier this year.

"I am pleased that at long last the Transportation Security Administration has heeded my call to commission an independent examination into the possible health risks travelers and TSA employees may face during airport screenings," she said in a statement Monday night.

According to a brief contract notice posted on a government procurement website, the National Academy of Sciences will convene a committee to review previous studies to determine if the dose from the scanners complies with existing health and safety standards and to evaluate the TSA's methods for testing and maintaining the machines.

Collins' office said the language in the contract notice wasn't final and that the study would be consistent with the senator's calls for an independent investigation. TSA spokesman David Castelveter added, "Administrator [John] Pistole has made a commitment to conduct the study and TSA is following through on that commitment."

Still, it's unclear how much the study that the TSA is proposing will add to what's known about the machines, mainly because it's not known if the National Academy of Sciences will conduct new tests or confine itself to examining previous studies. In the past, TSA has contracted with the Food and Drug Administration, the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and the Army Public Health Command to test the scanners. All three studies found the radiation was in line with a voluntary standard set by an industry panel that included FDA scientists.

A 2012 study by the Department of Homeland Security's independent watchdog supported the findings but based its report on previous tests performed by the TSA and the other groups.

This fall, the TSA began replacing the X-ray body scanners with millimeter-wave machines – a technology radiation experts consider safer – at most of its biggest airports. The TSA said the move was done to speed up lines and that the X-ray scanners would eventually be redeployed at smaller airports.

Here's a side-by-side comparison of the two types of scanners.

Europe has prohibited the X-ray scanners while Israel, which is influential in the security world, has recently begun testing them.

The TSA study will not address privacy, cultural or legal concerns that have been raised by the scans, the contract notice said.

Haven’t we seen this show before?  I thought they already had independent studies that turned out to be their own guys.  Do we expect a different result this time?

Aren’t they going to study the actual effectiveness and value for money as well?

Any doubts that this “independent” test will find the scanners safe? Of course, TSA conveniently ignores that these machine produce child pornography every time a child is scanned, which is why they are banned in Europe.

The fix is in and chief child molester Pistole will claim that TSA has been exonerated, duping all of the gullible politicians who will eagerly accept the results.

This agency and its workers are a national disgrace and need to be replaced.

Bob, it’s the old joke about putting in your banana in your ear to scare the crocodiles off your lawn.  You say you don’t see any crocodiles?  Well, that is effective!

Bill, it’s totally OK, because they paint over the pictures of naughty bits and it’s totally impossible to ever see the original image because computers aren’t known for storing information or anything, and it’s not like signals can be intercepted…

Besides, if you don’t let executives see you naked, the terrorists win.

An independent study will show that the Bush Administration’s Michael Chertoff, scanner manufacturer, became extraordinarily wealthy, which was really the whole point of the scanners to begin with.

Well that sounds about as promising as the center for tobacco studies funded by Big Tobacco…

Thought the scanner studies done earlier just used data from the TSA or
mock-ups that were not exactly machines used in the field.  Not going to
hold my breath on independant testing of actual machines.  I’m also
concerned about their ability to maintain and operate such machines safely,
that plays a big part of what travelers are exposed to.

Until the TSA publishes a report on these machines that contains the words “Therac-25,” don’t step into them.

The Therac 25 was a radiation therapy machine that had a software bug, one that caused 7 patients to die from accidental overdoses. A software bug in the rapiscan machine could easily give a passenger 1000 times the X ray dosage that a normal scan emits.

The prospect of that is something the TSA has consistently ignored.

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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