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Podcast: Why the TSA Continues to Rely on Controversial X-Ray Scanners

Reporter Michael Grabell (Lars Klove)

ProPublica reporter Michael Grabell joins the podcast this week to talk about his recent investigation into airport X-ray scanners and the health risks associated with these controversial machines.

He explains that while the scanners emit low doses of radiation, the core issue is that passengers could avoid this exposure altogether if the TSA were to use the safer alternative that's already at its disposal.

The main dispute isn't how much radiation the scanners give off or whether radiation is dangerous, Grabell says. "The dispute is should we be putting millions of passengers through these machines every year when there is an alternative technology that uses radio waves, a machine called the millimeter wave, that does not use X-rays to do the scanning?"

Grabell goes on to discuss the X-ray scanners origins in the California prison system, the Catch-22 that prevents the FDA from rigorously testing and evaluating these machines and how the manufacturer launched an intense lobbying campaign as the TSA began evaluating the scanners.

You can read the full podcast transcript below. You can also read Grabell's original story and the follow-up piece detailing the TSA's decision to perform a new, independent study on the safety of scanners in light of his report.


Mike Webb: Hi, I'm Mike Webb, and welcome to the ProPublica Podcast. Each year, more than 700 million Americans will get on an airplane and fly to another city. Part of the process of doing that is to go through some kind of security system that will check to see if they're carrying anything that could harm the flight. Since September 11, 2001, airports and the government have taken steps to improve the screening system. But in the process of making those improvements, have they sacrificed your health?

In a piece published on November 1, ProPublica reporter Michael Grabell took a look at the types of machines the Transportation Security Administration is installing in airports across the country, and he explains why they may not be beneficial to your health. He's here with us today in the Storage Closet Studio to talk about his findings. Welcome to the podcast, Michael.

Michael Grabell: Thank you for inviting me on.

Mike: All right. Well, why don't you tell us exactly what the TSA is doing?

Michael: Sure. The TSA has, essentially, this gap of not being able to screen passengers for explosives. We all know the metal detectors which we've had for decades now, but they don't detect anything that's not metal. And we've seen an increasing treat of liquid explosives, powder explosive, plastic explosive – things that the metal detector wouldn't detect. So the TSA is rolling out these body scanning machines that create an image of the body to detect, essentially, anything abnormal that's on the body.

Mike: When this happened originally, didn't it spark some kind of outrage and controversy?

Michael: It did. These have been controversial since they were first talked about. Many people might remember, last Thanksgiving, when there was more concern about these coming out. They're rolling them out a lot more now than they were the year before. The thing that kind of sparked this is that the story has kind of been... Some scientists say it's safe, some scientists say it's not. That's not really the case when we started looking at it. There is a certain body of knowledge as to how much radiation these machines emit. It's been fairly consistent, and there's also some pretty consistency from the National Academy of Sciences which says that there is no known level of radiation that does not cause cancer.

Mike: So is there some dispute in the scientific community about what's safe and what's not safe?

Michael: The dispute isn't how much radiation it gives off or is radiation dangerous. The dispute is should we be putting millions of passengers through these machines every year when there is an alternative technology that uses radio waves, a machine called the millimeter wave, that does not use X-rays to do the scanning?

Mike: What's the basic health risk that the backscatter machines have?

Michael: There's essentially three things that the public should know about the health risk. One, these machines emit an extremely low level of radiation. We can definitely say that. The second thing they should know is that the National Academy of Sciences says there is no level at which the risk of cancer is zero. One person said six of the people who fly every year will someday develop cancer as a result. One person said it might be as high as 100.

Mike: 100 out of 100,000?

Michael: 100,000 travelers, a billion scans is sort of what we're climbing to in the U.S. We have 700 million passengers, like you said at the top of the podcast. The third thing that we should know is, even though low levels of radiation are considered to increase the risk, is that we make decisions about radiation every day even though we may not know it. When you fly on an airplane, if you fly to Denver versus San Diego, these simple things do increase your risk of cancer. The TSA has said, rightly, as far as I can tell from the scientific evidence, that the machines are equivalent to about two minutes of flying in the air. So when you make these determinations, you are saying, "The radiation risk is so low on flying that it's inconvenient for me to drive all the way across the country."

When you go to the backscatter machine, you might say, my option is to have a pat down, or the TSA could use this alternative technology that, as far as we know, does not increase the risk of cancer.

Mike: And people do have that option, they don't have to go through the scanner.

Michael: Yes, to be clear on this, the choice is the scanner or a physical pat down.

Mike: OK. Now, these machines were first used in prisons in California and by U.S. Customs officials on the border. Why did they stop using them?

Michael: The California prison system stopped using them after a lawsuit was filed by several wives of inmates. They were using them on visitors to prevent contraband and drugs from getting into the prison. So there was a lawsuit about civil liberties. And shortly after, that the prison pulled them. The U.S. Customs Service used them until 2006. And they pulled them, they say not for safety reasons, but because there were so few of them that the smugglers figured out where they were and just avoided them. The thing that's important about those two cases, though, is that, back as recently as five years ago, we treated these scanners very cautiously. The Customs Service required a written consent form from anyone who was going to go through the machine.

In addition, the Customs Agency had a policy of not putting pregnant women through these, which is a very different situation now where the TSA says it's safe for all passengers, including pregnant women.

Mike: I think you wrote in your story that the French don't allow it.

Michael: Yeah, and this is probably the most controversial part of all of this issue. The French, in their Radiation Safety Agency, specifically recommended against scanning pregnant women. Moreover, in the U.S., the FAA has issued guidance about pregnant flight crew members, flight attendants and pilots. Because you get radiation in the air, and you get radiation from the body scan, that they should just be aware that they might reach their occupational limit. At the same time, however, no similar warning has been given to pregnant frequent fliers who would be operating under the same work conditions.

Mike: Right, OK. I want to understand what were some of the biggest factors in getting the TSA to deploy these machines. Was one force more significant than the other? Was it because of the scare caused by the Nigerian underwear bomber, or was it because of increased lobbying that sort of moved their widespread use along?

Michael: Sure. There's a combination of many factors. This did not start with the underwear bomber. The TSA already had plans to deploy these for primary screening and to deploy them at as many airports as possible. The major impetus of this is that we've known for years, more after 9/11...There have been other threats like the explosion of two jet liners in Russia by explosives carried on women, and these things have all raised the... And also, some audits by investigators saying, "TSA has no way to stop this threat of someone bringing explosives in." So that has been the prevailing thing that they've been trying to deal with that prompted these machines. However, at the same time, there is a clear picture, between 2006 and 2008, where Rapiscan dramatically increased its lobbying efforts from $130,000 a year to about $420,000 a year in just a span of two years.

In addition, they opened plants and expanded plants in districts of key decision makers. They hired top legislative aides for these decision makers as their lobbyists. Like we said, they started a Political Action Committee, which many contractors do. But they learned, essentially, what they needed to do to sort of get people's attention and play almost the Washington game.

Mike: OK. Talk a little bit about the bureaucratic snafu that takes regulation away from the FDA and gives it to the TSA.

Michael: This is less of a snafu as the FDA does have the authority to regulate electronic products. However, it is not the same thing as regulating a medical device. The actual machines you might go through at your doctor's office go through an additional sort of regulations that these machines do not go through, even though they essentially both do the same thing – to expose humans to X-rays. The FDA had an advisory panel that looked at this and recommended a federal safety standard. The FDA decided against that, and decided to go with an industry standard that is voluntary and not a federal regulation. As a result, we have these discrepancies where we have an FDA regulation for baggage X-rays, but we have no federal safety standard for people X-rays at airports.

The FDA, in fact, has not set a federal safety standard for an electronic product since 1985. The reason for this is both a congressional direction that federal safety agencies should be using industry standards wherever possible, and second, a lack of resources. The government used to have 500 people who looked at electronic products emitting radiation and to determine their safety. They now have fewer than 20.

Mike: Because of budget cuts.

Michael: Because of budget cuts and because of additional priorities. The time when they had a lot of these was back in the '70s and '80s when there was a lot of concern about TVs and microwaves, and even laser light shows got a federal safety standard. Then we added a medical device unit and we didn't increase the staff at the new division that would look at all of this stuff. So as medical devices expanded, the people who were looking at electronic products that emitted radiation were pulled away to do other things.

Mike: Ok. I guess my last question is really about the TSA and why they chose the more controversial machine versus the ProVision scanning machine that you wrote about that you said uses a different energy and is much safer. Why not use that one?

Michael: We asked TSA this, and their response was...It was twofold. One was that they don't feel that the backscatter machine is unsafe. They said to us, specifically, "We don't think anybody will get cancer from these machines." They also talked about competition, that there was a benefit for the federal government and the U.S. to encourage these companies to compete against each other and come up with a better technology at a lower cost and that, by doing this, people would essentially be trying to build a better mousetrap.

Mike: OK, all right. Well, thanks for joining us on the podcast, Michael. You can read his story at And now, for our "Officials Say the Darndest Things" Tumblr quote of the week. "I generally think customers don't want to be nickeled and dimed." Who said it? The head of retail products at Pittsburgh based PNC Financial Services, on the news that big banks have backtracked on their plans to charge monthly debit fees.

OK, that's it for this week's show. Thanks to you for listening, and thanks to Minhee Cho for producing. For ProPublica, I'm Mike Webb. We'll catch you next time.

Transcription by CastingWords

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