New Study – TSA Xray Scanners are Safe. Or Maybe Not.

Is TSA radiation uniquely safe while all other sources of radiation are dangerous? Or is it dangerous too?

A new study has been released by Marquette University, claiming the TSA X-ray whole body scanners are safe.  Bravo.  We can all now relax, right?

Well, maybe yes.  But, equally likely, maybe no.  In fact, some of us might feel that this study – rather than supporting its claim that X-ray scanners are safe – actually goes a long way towards showing quite the opposite.

The study suggested that the radiation from the scanners, which is supposed to only penetrate the smallest amount of skin, would actually penetrate into 29 different organs, including the brain and heart.  This is not what the TSA has told us, although, as you’ll read below, it is far from clear how the study authors managed to determine this.

And while the study suggests the level of radiation is ‘safe’ and lower than what you’d get from eg a mammogram, the study also suggests that the level of radiation is one third that of the maximum recommended, which is a great deal higher than has been previously claimed by the TSA.

Now think about this.  How many times a year do you get a mammogram (in the case of most men, never!).  But how many times a year might a frequent flier be irradiated at an airport?

When you keep in mind that radiation is cumulative – which sort of means that if you have 21 doses of radiation through the TSA X-ray machines during the course of a year, you’ve ended up with the equivalent of seven times the maximum suggested dose (as per ANSI).

Safe?  As women know, mammograms are infrequently given and not without some controversy.  Indeed, the National Cancer Institute, while pointing out that in the case of mammograms, the benefits probably outweigh the risks, also says

The risk of harm from this radiation exposure is low, but repeated x-rays have the potential to cause cancer.

We’re being asked to submit to something not very much less than a mammogram, and which cumulatively over multiple exposures during multiple journeys over a year comes to many times the recommended maximum.  What are the benefits that this greatly increased risk justifies?

This is an easy answer when considering mammograms, but when it comes to TSA X-ray machines, the answer is much less clear, because – as has now been repeatedly demonstrated – they just plain don’t work when it comes to detecting ‘artfully concealed’ contraband objects.  Even the TSA’s own testing has proven this – see this story about an agent who repeatedly smuggled a gun through.  And then there is the famous case where a college student worked out a loophole and posted his successful smuggling on a Youtube video.

So why is the typical frequent flier being asked to accept the equivalent of many mammograms a year, but with no balancing benefit?

The study concludes the machines are ‘safe’, but I wonder if the author ever thought beyond the issue of one single dose, and considered instead the cumulative impacts of a dozen, or two dozen, doses over each year.

One more thing.  This study was not based on any real world testing.  It was conducted as a mathematical model based on, ahem, nothing more than public data that has been previously provided by the TSA to support their unproven statements about the safety of the machines they use.  Is it any surprise that using the TSA’s own unverified data resulted in a dubious finding of possible safety?

A more rigorous study would start off with measuring the actual radiation emitted from these machines, and doing things also like testing the variation in radiation emitted from machine to machine, and within each machine, and looking for any ‘hot spots’ where radiation levels might be greater or lesser than other areas.

One of the two authors even conceded that the data the study was based on is imperfect when she said

Access to the machines for measurements and assessments is limited.  Public disclosure of the systems specifications would enable more accurate system modeling.

Here’s an unfortunately uncritical review of the findings of this study.

So, what can we conclude?  If we accept the TSA’s information without any verification or validation, and if the machine is working as it should, then a single dose of X-rays from one of the whole body scanners might be acceptable.

But, if the TSA data is, shall we say, incomplete, and/or if you expect to be radiated multiple times each year, well, you’re on your own.

This ‘study’ does nothing whatsoever to advance the overall independent understanding of the risks inherent in these machines.

And who cares if the machines are safe or not.  The fact inescapably remains that safe or not, they are also useless and ineffective in finding hidden objects artfully concealed on people going through them.  So while a debate on the safety of the machines is important, surely the more pressing matter is they just don’t work.

7 thoughts on “New Study – TSA Xray Scanners are Safe. Or Maybe Not.”

  1. So what happens when you refuse? The pat down? If you object to anything the TSA say, they call the “troops” in and you are delayed for your flight. What can be done?

  2. How can a study have any validity when it does not use carefully sourced neutral data?

    We may as well ask the cigarette companies to provide the data on lung cancer for ‘researchers’ to ‘analyze’. Ask the drug companies to certify the safety of their own new products with no need to involve the FDA. etc etc.

    This is not a scientific study at all. It merely recycles data that the TSA has carefully selected. AND – here’s the amazing part. Even with the best data the TSA can provide, the study still shows that every three X-rays is the same as a chest X-ray/mammogram – something you’re not supposed to get more than once every year or two.

  3. This is a really serious issue and needs further exposure by the press. I make a point of asking the TSA operators why they don’t have a radiation monitor like others do that work with x-ray equipement. Many say they’ve tried and get a worried look on their face.

  4. Lets get this straight. We are relying on the data provided by the government who is not known to tell the truth.. and then we expect the TSA wonderkinds to use the equip correctly… and we know it does not work.. and you recommend challenging a federal agency? Tell me you the outcome of this. Will it look like bank regulation? or Madoff and the SEC? or my mail today that has 3 pieces for someone with a different name and a different address?

  5. As a cancer survivor who is frequently not to get too much exposure to radiation, I find the machines offensive — and the pat-down a bit more personal than it’s supposed to be. If I had wanted to go to a gynecologist, I would have made an appointment. Flying has turned into a nightmare — Greyhound bus drivers are happier with their jobs and treat the customers better than the two flight attendants left in coach, who are incredibly overworked — and like us, have to bring their own food.

  6. David makes the key point about costs versus benefits. The costs are increased radiation to flyers and workers, the benefits are security theatre.

    But the pat down can be even worse. Last year, when I opted out from being Xray-ed in Las Vegas, a large,
    beefy TSA agent, unhappy (apparently) with my not moving quickly enough or following his commands
    fast enough, hit me not once, but twice in my testicles. This was not a quick touch or an accident, but a
    deliberate assault, a little “whack” with his hand, which doubled me over in pain. He even smirked at me while he did it. I was then faced with the option of responding to him physically, and being jailed, complaining to a supervisor and missing my flight, or holding my anger and humiliation and rushing to make my flight.

    I can’t think of anything worse than being assaulted by a supposed “government agent” and having
    no recourse. It’s like living in a fascist state.

  7. Pingback: Weekly Roundup Friday 29 June 2012 » The Travel Insider

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