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My Helical Tryst: Review of the TSA X-ray backscatter body scanner safety report: hide your kids, hi

I’ve been reluctant to weigh in on the TSA scanners because there simply wasn’t enough data, pro or con, to really make a decision about their safety. Jason Bell goes a long way towards giving us more hard data to consider, and it’s somewhat alarming.

I still maintain that the real problem with this sort of thing is that it doesn’t actually improve the safety of air travel to any meaningful degree, unless the object is to make flying so onerous that no one bothers to do it anymore.

My Helical Tryst: Review of the TSA X-ray backscatter body scanner safety report: hide your kids, hide your wife

Last spring, a group of scientists at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) including John Sedat Ph.D., David Agard Ph.D., Robert Stroud, Ph.D. and Marc Shuman, M.D. sent a letter of concern to the TSA regarding the implementation of their ‘Advanced Imaging Technology’, or body scanners as a routine method of security screening in US airports. Of specific concern is the scanner that uses X-ray back-scattering. In the letter they raise some interesting points, which I’ve quoted below:

  • “Our overriding concern is the extent to which the safety of this scanning device has been adequately demonstrated. This can only be determined by a meeting of an impartial panel of experts that would include medical physicists and radiation biologists at which all of the available relevant data is reviewed.”
  • “The X-ray dose from these devices has often been compared in the media to the cosmic ray exposure inherent to airplane travel or that of a chest X-ray. However, this comparison is very misleading: both the air travel cosmic ray exposure and chest X-rays have much higher X-ray energies and the health consequences are appropriately understood in terms of the whole body volume dose. In contrast, these new airport scanners are largely depositing their energy into the skin and immediately adjacent tissue, and since this is such a small fraction of body weight/vol, possibly by one to two orders of magnitude, the real dose to the skin is now high.”
  • “In addition, it appears that real independent safety data do not exist.”
  • “There is good reason to believe that these scanners will increase the risk of cancer to children and other vulnerable populations. We are unanimous in believing that the potential health consequences need to be rigorously studied before these scanners are adopted.”
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    8 Comments

    1. I’m wondering why the TSA didn’t ask the Israelis to impart a little of their smarts on the body scanner thing. If I recall correctly, the Israelis (or the Europeans, I forget right now) use radio waves in the full-body scanners, not x-rays.

      • What the Israelis do that we don’t is actually both more fundamental and more effective than any of our security theatre:

        Every passenger is interviewed.
        Every passenger is interviewed by a trained professional.
        Every passenger is interviewed by a trained professional who maintains constant eye contact with the passenger.

        Racial profiling is wrong and ineffective. Behavioural profiling, on the other hand, is highly effective. But it requires more than a 40 hour training program and a $13/hour wage.

        The biggest problem with an Israeli style security approach in the USA is the sheer volume of air travel. Israel has 28 airports, of which only three are international. The United states has nearly 15,000 (!) airports, and more than 50 of those server international traffic.

        That doesn’t mean the Israeli methods aren’t ones we should adopt. But I do think we need to appreciate that it’s not as simple as some people seem to suggest it is.

        • I think I’m basically agreeing with you …

          Ii think the Israeli approach would work here, if the scaling were done intelligently (e.g. treat each airport as a separate system of manageable size instead of trying to act as though the US is one big airport that needs securing as a whole), … and if we get serious enough about security and impatient enough with security theatre to find the will to spend the money it’d take. The big obstacle (bigger than funding) is the training — the ramp-up time for such a system would be long because of both the number of interviewers who’d need to be trained and how much training each requires. Assuming sane-ish turnover rates once the system is running, training won’t be a problem then (and by then, we’d have plenty of qualified trainers); starting out from essentially zero trained interviewers, it’d take a while to get the system staffed.

          I think it might be worth it. At least worth investigating what the actual annual costs would be (taking into account any savings from scrapping the theatre-only aspects of what we’ve got), and asking ourselves what it’d be worth to us to have an effective and safe system that involved fewer delays and less intrusion on dignity/liberties.

    2. Thank you for posting about this.

      I guess I don’t understand why our current level of security theater wasn’t sufficient. Supposedly the reason it was okay to have all the shoes off and no liquids and metal detectors and stuff was that it worked.

      Now we need a new rigamarole, what does that say about the old rigamarole?

      Plus there’s the whole I want to at least see the face of the person who sees me naked. Seeing without being seen is a big power issue. Add into that the fact that I want to be sure the person seeing me naked is a woman. I’m not prejudiced; I don’t care if she’s gay, I don’t care if she’s trans, but I want someone who will come out and say “I am a woman” in public. I want someone who knows what it is to go through life among people who think your body is public property and your time belongs to anyone who cares to claim it.

      • I want all the officials and bureaucrats and politicians who are pushing for this to have to go through it themselves. Apparently they are all exempt, what a surprise, it’s “one law for you and anothe for us”. They say it’s so safe, let them prove it by going through it several hundred times each (and then wait a decade or two to see what delayed symptoms occur) before they force it on the rest of the population.

        Personally, I don’t care if they see my ‘junk’. I understand that there are lots of people who do care (I know a fair number of transexuals, and people with medical problems they woukd rather not let strangers see), but if anyone wants to look at me naked that’s their problem (just don’t blame me if the sight gives them nightmares). The thing which worries me is the medical problem — I’m enough of a scientist to not be scared of ‘radiation'[1] as a generic term, but X-rays which concentrate in the skin and the lack of peer review by experts in the field are a different matter.

        [1] Too many people don’t distinguish types of radiation. Only the other day I heard someone on the radio comparing mobile phone RF radiation to beta radiation from C-14 decay to hard gamma and saying “it’s all the same, it’s radiation and therefore bad” without any idea of the energies and effects involved.

      • The liquids rule was already a silly and unnecessary security measure. Arguably, so are the shoes. The response to any threat is rather like the old-fashioned medical school rule of “never let them leave your office without a prescription”: unnecessary medicine to prove they are doing something.

    3. There’s a non-trivial incidence of skin cancer in my family. That, combined with my years spent as a lifeguard (can we say “too much sun,” boys and girls? Yes, I thought we could!), means I’m not subjecting this body to _any_ xrays that my doctor doesn’t insist are absolutely medically necessary.

      So if I have to fly, I’ll plan extra time and submit to being groped… in public, because at least I want witnesses. While I agree that many TSA screeners are just working people doing their jobs, I also know a few for whom it’s a personal power trip, and I don’t want them being able to abuse that power in private.

    4. Seeing as this is the third or fourth time I have seen this in my flist, I am moved to say something about it. I have to fly to LA on December 7, for job training. The last time I flew to Chicago, I did ask at the scanner and got a pat answer that of course they were safe… I will be asking if the machines at Logan and LAX are back-scatter or the less harmful but just as intrusive millimeter wave machines. Although the full body pat down sounds very unpleasant, I think I would rather go thru that than the back-scatter machine. While I do not have skin cancer in my family, I do have other types of cancer on my Dad’s side, which I would rather not contract, thank you very much.

      Unfortunately, I think most people would rather not think about possible dangers, and are willing to believe whatever the TSA says about these machines.

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