Do Airport Body Scanners Up Your Risk for Skin Cancer?

Merely Me Health Guide
  • There have been a lot of changes to the way we experience air travel. Every time I fly it seems they have changed the rules. They have rules about the liquids and gels you bring on board, they want you to take off your shoes while going through security, and now they have new body scanners you are required to go through unless you want a pat down. These new screening machines are to replace the old metal detectors as they are said to be more apt to detect potentially dangerous items underneath a passenger’s clothing. These airport security scanners have been under much scrutiny from the public for the invasion of privacy some feel they pose. I am sure you have all seen the television reports warning that these scanners show detailed images of the body including genitalia. In addition to worries about privacy there are some who worry if these scanners are safe. There are some experts who say that exposure to the radiation emitted from these devices may increase your risk for skin cancer.

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    The type of scanner which most worries some scientists is called X-ray back-scatter scanners which use low-energy X-rays to view any hidden items under clothing. There are some experts who say that exposure to the radiation emitted from these devices may increase your risk for certain types of cancer including skin cancer.

     

    How real is this risk?

     

    The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) reports that these scanners are safe on their website: “Advanced imaging technology screening is safe for all passengers, and the technology meets national health and safety standards.” They also have a more detailed summary of the regulations behind their guarantee of safety for passengers who are screened using this imaging technology. The TSA states exposure to their screening device is safe for all passengers: “Advanced imaging technology screening is safe for all passengers, including children, pregnant women, and individuals with medical implants.”

     

    The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also provides research to give a statement about the safety of these new screening devices: “A person would have to be screened more than a thousand times in one year in order to exceed the annual radiation dose limit for people screening that has been set by expert radiation safety organizations.”

     

    Despite the reassurances of the TSA and the FDA, some doctors and scientists are still worried about the potential health risks of these fully body scanners.

     

    • In an NPR report published in May of last year, David Agard, a biochemist and biophysicist at the University of California, San Francisco, warned that any dose of X-rays will pose some potential risk. What exactly is this risk? Agard, as well as some of his colleagues, believe that the radiation used by the X-ray body scanners have the potential to induce chromosome damage which can lead to cancer. These UCSF scientists worry that the scanner radiation could cause melanoma or breast cancer.

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    • David Brenner, head of Columbia University's Center for Radiological Research, also has concerns about the widespread use of the full body X-ray scanners. He has spoken of his concerns to the Congressional Biomedical Research Caucus. Brenner is most worried about those individuals who comprise 5% of the population who are especially sensitive to radiation due to a gene mutation. Brenner also wonders about the susceptibility of children who are exposed to the scanner radiation. According to one NPR interview Brenner speculates that the most likely health risk from the airport scanners is basal cell carcinoma.

     

    Dr. Michael Love is another scientist who worries about the possible health risks associated with full body scanners. Dr. Love, who runs an X-ray lab at the department of biophysics and biophysical chemistry at Johns Hopkins University School of medicine told the AFP last November that “…statistically someone is going to get skin cancer from these X-rays.”

     

    • In the New York Times it was reported that Peter Rez, a professor of physics at Arizona State University, raised a concern over scanners which do not work properly. He poses the possibility that if the scanner were to jam then one could receive a high-level dose of radiation. There is a safety shut-off mechanism to prevent this from happening but what if it malfunctions? Rez has opted not to go through these scanners due to the concern over a possible malfunction.

     

    The Transportation Security Administration offers an alternative to the full body scans which is to go through a metal detector instead. But some passengers are met with great resistance from security staff if they choose this option. Not only that, you will be asked to be subject to a hand search which some report as very intrusive. Humorist Dave Barry recounts his pat down ordeal for the NPR. Barry was required to submit to a hand search with the reason that his X-ray scan showed that he had a “blurry groin.”

     

    With the experts still battling it out over whether the scans are safe, it leaves travelers in a precarious position. USA Today reported in February that the TSA has stalled in their release of radiation inspection reports for their X-ray scanners. Lawmakers had requested that these reports be made public months ago.

     

    We are eager to hear your thoughts. Are you concerned about any safety risks from the airport scanners? Let us know what you think. We value your opinion.

Published On: March 07, 2011