Is It Safe? The TSA Wants You to Think So
posted at 12:03 pm on November 16, 2010 by Howard Portnoy
Not unpredictably, the tale and accompanying video of a man who ordered TSA personnel not to “touch his junk” after refusing to be scanned in a San Diego airport have gone viral. Equally predictably, criticism of Obama appointee Janet Napolitano for her intractable position on the use of scanners, which she has announced will be used without exception, has produced an outcry from the liberal blogosphere. “Like it or lump it” is the message from those who argued three short years ago that then-president George W. Bush was invading their privacy for wiretapping overseas phone conversations with individuals on the FBI’s terrorism watch list.
Much as liberal voices want to make this an us-versus-them issue—the “us” being non-liberals—it is really an us-versus-it situation, the “it” being risk of radiation poisoning.
Since 2007, the Transportation Security Administration has been using advanced imaging technology, or AIT, scanners with increasing frequency. As the TSA’s website notes, this state-of-the-art imaging technology is currently being deployed at 68 airports, with more on the way.
The AIT scanners use one of two basic technologies, millimeter wave and backscatter. The question is not whether these technologies “can detect a wide range of threats to transportation security in a matter of seconds to protect passengers and crews,” as the TSA maintains. It is, rather, is how safe are these units? Those who fly planes for a living believe the answer is “Not terribly.”
Recently, several pilots’ unions made headlines when they announced they would boycott the use of AIT scanners. Undaunted, the TSA boasts at its website that “98 percent of passengers chose this technology over alternative screening procedures,” meaning a pat-down by TSA personnel. That statistic might be something other than totally meaningless if the TSA furnished information on how many of these passengers had heard of the health risks associated with AIT scanners, let alone sought out independent verification that the scanners were as safe as the TSA maintains.
As for that verification, the TSA reports that backscatter technology
was evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH), the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST), and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL).
The agency does not specify whether millimeter wave technology was evaluated or by whom, which seems vaguely unsettling if not suspicious. Nevertheless, the TSA’s bottom line findings are “that the energy projected by millimeter wave technology is thousands of times less than a cell phone transmission” and that “a single scan using backscatter technology produces exposure equivalent to two minutes of flying on an airplane.” (Flying on an airplane produces exposure to radiation? Does anyone else find this less than comforting?)
As to the sources of these claims, note that only one—the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL)—is an independent, non-government agency. (Forgive my cynicism, but the FDA doesn’t have an exactly sterling track record in its capacity as consumer watchdog.) The APL’s report, which is available here, does seem to offer some assurance about the safety of the Rapiscan Secure 1000 backscatter scanner. But it is also contains this caveat:
Additional action is recommended [boldface theirs] to ensure that the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP 1993) general public dose recommendation of less than 100 mrem (0.1 rem) per year is being met… Specifically:
—An area exists above each of the units, due to primary beam overshoot, where the 100 mrem general public dose limit could potentially be exceeded. This area extends up to a height of about 14 ft and 4.6 ft behind each of the units.
—A second area exists at the entry and exit locations of the scan area, where the 100 mrem general public dose limit could potentially be exceeded. This area extends approximately 1.7 ft from the side of the units at the entry and exit locations.
In other words, the scanners may not be one hundred percent foolproof. Further down in the report, under the heading “Risks and Risk Mitigation,” is additional cause for concern:
The system evaluated may be configured differently than the system deployed to the operational environment.
In short, whether you receive dangerous levels of radiation depends on who set up the particular AIT scanner being used and whether he followed the manufacturer’s recommendations.
Finally, there is a rather troubling note in the report to the effect that depending on the position of the generator, a radiation warning label affixed to the unit may not be visible. It’s hard to imagine the government would tolerate less than absolute transparency and forthrightness where Americans’ health is at risk!