Green Room

Is It Safe? The TSA Wants You to Think So

posted at 12:03 pm on November 16, 2010 by

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!

Related Articles

“Touch my junk, and I’ll have you arrested”: The TSA’s way or the highway

Al Qaeda hits new low: Sews bombs inside dogs

The TSA admits to storing potentially embarrassing airport checkpoint body scan images

Cross-posted at Libertarian Examiner. Follow me on Twitter or join me at Facebook. You can reach me at howard.portnoy@gmail.com or by posting a comment below.

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“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.

Perhaps it’s not quite the same thing,Mr Portnoy.

Some folks were arguing about whether the executive branch should be allowed to listen in on communications that they were having in their homes with people around the world without the feds showing cause for intercepting their communications.

There seems to be some fairly strong basis for that objection …

Amendment IV

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

… while expectations of privacy in places of public gathering and in public transport are less well “grounded”

audiculous on November 16, 2010 at 1:31 PM

I will never subject myself of my child to the cancer-scan or the public molestation, but my objections would stop at a boycott of the airline industry were it not for the knowledge that the more people boycott, the more likely it is that we’ll be bailing the airlines out again.

I take greater issue with being forced to give reward an industry for driving consumers away than I do with their tactics themselves.

RachDubya on November 16, 2010 at 1:41 PM

Amendment IV

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Howard Portnoy on November 16, 2010 at 1:43 PM

right. the argument was that the exec branch didn’t usually have probable cause and oft lacked warrants.

no one was arguing against gathering intel on foreign guys likely to be planning to harm us, the argument was that the gov’t was listening to American citizens, not known to be bad guys, in their American houses talking to people overseas not known to be bad guys.

overbraod was the contention and the contention was arguably true.

look into the legislation that the telecommunications companies demanded. they wanted immunity, retroacxtive, because they helped the gov’t listen in, without being served warrants.

audiculous on November 16, 2010 at 1:57 PM

the argument was that the exec branch didn’t usually have probable cause and oft lacked warrants.

No it wasn’t. The argument was that warrants were not obtained in advance. The argument was never made that probable cause didn’t exist, and for a good reason: because warrants were issued, on probable cause, after the fact.

I was always opposed to the idea behind what was called “warrantless wiretapping” because I don’t think we should trust the executive with this power on principle. The need to “wiretap” (which today usually doesn’t involve actually tapping wires) has transmogrified since the wiretap court was created in the 1970s, and the methodology of the law needs review and updating. We should have gone — and we still should go — to the trouble to have that debate and make the necessary changes. Instead, the Bush executive chose to get around the intent of the law in a way that creates a moral hazard. Obama has continued that practice.

Need to keep this debate accurate.

J.E. Dyer on November 16, 2010 at 2:35 PM

I believe Xray techs are required to wear a badge that shows their level of exposure. It would be fascinating to go through the scanner wearing such a badge.

kurtzz3 on November 16, 2010 at 2:50 PM

JED, let’s review the Constitutional requirement

Probable cause —- then warrant—- THEN search.

I don’t see the distinction that you’re drawing, unless you’re contending that the exec ALWAYS had PC sufficient to obtain a warrant for each communication monitored (and they were myriad) and simply ignored the warrant process.

That seems a bit of a stretch unless you’re working off of a really, really low standard for PC.

audiculous on November 16, 2010 at 3:07 PM

Interesting how you’ve made this a discussion of a point made in passing that you’ve chosen to fixate on.

Howard Portnoy on November 16, 2010 at 3:39 PM

You’re sort of right about that, Mr P.

But you raised the point and I think that the potential for harm to all of us from governmental activity is probably many orders of magnitude more likely to come from electronic surveillance than from errant unintentional irradiation due to airport scanning.

However, if you would care to delete the comment in the post, I would gladly agree to having my comments expunged and so that other folks could offer response to your main topic.

audiculous on November 16, 2010 at 4:05 PM

The TSA-soon to be re-named the T&A-get their rocks off groping nad fondling people. Prediction that within a month it will come to light there are more than a few T&A agents that are sexual offenders, perverts and child molesters that “slipped through the cracks” and are employed there, as she/male Janet will say.

Whover the first person that gets fondled by a known sexual offender hired by the TSA, you will get millions in a lawsuit agianst them, Janet and the governement. Have at it!

Niteowl45 on November 16, 2010 at 4:48 PM

I’m reminded that federal agents are not above state law and can be charged and sent to prison for things like murder, rape and SEXUAL ASSAULT.
I personally haven’t flown since they started making you take off your shoes and I never will again. But someone could do us all a favor and sign a criminal complaint.
I am quite sure I’d go to jail for kicking the crap out of the idiots feeling-up my three year old. And sooner or later this is gonna happen.

docjohn52 on November 16, 2010 at 7:30 PM

Correct me if I’m wrong here, but any photon of radiation could be the one that causes that mutation that gives you cancer, correct? And sure, the more you have, the more likely you will suffer from the exposure, but deciding how much is “safe” is sort of arbitrary. You should still avoid any unnecessary exposure.

David Shane on November 16, 2010 at 8:27 PM

I can imagine this being a boon for the Air Taxi/air charter association if they play it right.

http://www.atxa.com/

get 6-7 people all going the same direction and I wonder if the tickets will be within reason of a regular commercial airline ticket.

no groping. no radiation. you pick the departure time. if you’re 1 minute late because you’re handling a “diaper emergency” they don’t give away your seat. that should make up for the extra money you’ll have to pay.

plus you should be able to take off or land from any small airport.

warhorse_03826 on November 16, 2010 at 9:55 PM

Flying on an airplane produces exposure to radiation? Does anyone else find this less than comforting?

Just being alive on this planet exposes you to radiation of all sorts in normal daily life. It has been this way foreever, and has little to do with modern living.

Some of this radiation comes from space and is mostly blocked by our atmosphere. The more atmosphere you have above you, the less you are exposed to this radiation. Thus, when flying at 35000 feet, you are exposed to more radiation than at sea level. This is what they are talking about.

If it is true that this scanner is the equivalent radiation exposure of two minutes of flying time, then the risk is indeed very low.

Keep in mind that in mountain cities such as Denver, you are also exposed to more radiation than you are in sea level cities such as San Diego.

mpbk on November 16, 2010 at 10:50 PM

Safer than Bush looking at your library card, ehh.

Where did everyone go?

tarpon on November 17, 2010 at 7:16 AM

There’s a certain irony to the fact that we allow illegal “immigrants” (and who knows who else, allah akbar) to spill over our border unmolested by machines or pat downs, and declare war on states like Arizona who try to enforce the law, but we the legal people are subjected to radiation and humiliation.

Buy Danish on November 17, 2010 at 8:14 AM

It’s hard to imagine the government would tolerate less than absolute transparency and forthrightness where Americans’ health is at risk!

It’s hard to imagine? Only a fool would trust the government about ANYTHING! There is more than enough evidence that the government will lie, cheat, steal, torture, and murder you if that is what they want to do. And when I say torture and murder, I am not talking about Gitmo – remember Waco? 76 innocent people slaughtered by the US government after being tortured for several weeks.

woodNfish on November 17, 2010 at 1:48 PM