The TSA and Your Health —
Hidden Facts They Don’t Want You to Know…
The new “strip search” scanning machines at airport security checkpoints are creating a furor over issues of privacy, decency and health.
I loathe these machines mainly because they’re an extreme, outrageous assault on your privacy, exposing your person in a way even your doctor seldom sees. And in return for putting up with this we get very little additional protection against terrorists trying to smuggle weapons and explosives on to planes.
But there’s a practical problem, too, even if you don’t mind strangers looking at you naked: the scanners expose you to a significant amount of radiation. Your total, lifetime exposure to radiation increases your risk of cancer, and every new exposure should be avoided when possible.
The use of airport scanners is certainly an optional, avoidable use of radiation and a needless addition to our cancer risk. How bad is it? Here’s what we’ve been able to learn. . .
Secret of People Who Don’t Get Cancer
A century ago, a British doctor stumbled across a remote and isolated tribe at the extreme northern end of India. He lived among the tribe members for seven years to learn the secret of their robust health.
In 1921, Oxford University published this doctor’s remarkable findings.
He reported that the tribe members were “unsurpassed” in freedom from disease. Cancer was unknown in this tribe. The doctor also discovered they had a long life expectancy.
He also noted a peculiar thing about what they ate: they ate a great deal of a certain highly nutritious food. And get this: It’s a food that most people in the U.S. and Europe throw away! Why?? Because hardly anybody knows it’s good to eat — and good for you, too!
Click here to keep reading, because this food is one of the most important secrets we’ve found to preventing cancer AND curing it if you’ve already got it.
By the end of this year, 1,000 full-body scanners will be used in airports around the U.S., and two out of every three passengers will be asked to step into one of them for a six-second head-to-toe scan before boarding. Compare that to ‘just’ 385 full-body scanners in 68 U.S. airports in November of 2010.
There’s also talk of their increased use in train stations and courthouses… and I suspect it’s just a matter of time before they’re commonplace at sporting events and other large crowd events.
What’s more… on October 28th, 2010, the TSA announced their plans to perform “enhanced pat-downs”, which some have called excessively intrusive and the equivalent of molestation. If you opt out of the full body scanner, this is the demeaning treatment you’ll get. But it might be a better choice than the scanner, as you’ll see if you keep reading.
Many passengers, especially frequent fliers — plus pilot and flight attendant unions, and a number of scientists are calling for more stringent studies before these machines are used everywhere, on every passenger.
Not all scanners are the same
Two types of full-body scanners are being deployed nationwide: backscatter and millimeter wave.
Here are their similarities…
a) They create black and white images.
b) They may detect concealed non-metallic weapons or explosives that wouldn’t be picked up by metal detectors.
c) Both emit small doses of radiation.
And now for their differences — and this is where we pick up the controversy.
Millimeter wave scanners create a 3-dimensional image by bouncing electromagnetic waves off your body. According to the TSA, they emit about 10,000 times less radio frequency energy than your cell phone… a dose considered very trivial by the scientific community.
Backscatter scanners create a 2-D image by projecting X-ray beams over your body to create a reflection, similar to a sketch. They emit 10 microrem of emission, and are of concern to scientists.
Naturally, the TSA and the Department of Homeland Security maintain that the scanners emit safe levels of radiation… which DHS director Janet Napolitano says is the equivalent of the cosmic radiation you get in about 2 minutes of flying time.
The National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurement claims that an individual would need to be scanned 100 times for this dose to be considered worrisome. One thousand backscatter scans would be equivalent to one X-ray.
If that’s true, where’s the controversy?
Well, for one thing, not everyone agrees with this assessment.
The voices of dissent
1. Airline Professionals
The pilots’ union, Allied Pilots Association, publicly advised its members — who are scanned 2 to 3 times per day on every work day — to opt for private pat-downs instead of the scan… noting that airline pilots in the U.S. already receive higher doses of radiation on-the-job (cosmic radiation) than nearly any other category of worker, including nuclear power plant employees.
As a result of this exposure, some studies of frequent fliers — such as pilots and flight attendants — have elevated risks of certain malignancies.
One study conducted by the California Department of Health compared the cancer death rates of California-based female flight attendants to a control group of females.
They found no increased mortality among flight attendants… but they did find a 30% increased risk of breast cancer and twice the risk of malignant melanoma, according to information distributed by the Association of Flight Attendants. In other words, they get more cancer but they don’t die at higher rates. Evidently they’re successful at detecting and controlling the cancers their jobs expose them to.
Add the excess radiation from airport scanners, and it seems prudent for airline professionals to take precautions.
Many scientists are wondering how the radiation exposure can be as low as the TSA claims.
And many have concluded that the answer lies in how the manufacturer and government officials measure the dose. They average the exposure from the beam over the volume of your whole body, which is how scientists measure medical x-ray exposure (which zaps through bone and tissue).
However, backscatter beams are different. They skim over your body’s surface.
Dr. John W. Sedat, Professor Emeritus in Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco, with expertise in imaging and a member of the National Academy of Science (NAS) — along with three colleagues, sent a letter of concern to President Obama’s Assistant for Science and Technology on April 6, 2010.
His colleagues included Dr. Marc Shuman, an internationally known and respected cancer expert and UCSF professor, and Drs. David Agard and Robert Stroud, UCSF Professors, X-ray crystallographers, imaging experts and NAS members.
They expressed concern that since the dose is delivered primarily to the skin and adjacent tissue — and this is a tiny fraction of total body weight — the dose to your skin is now dangerously high… 10 to 20 times higher than the manufacturer’s calculations.
Sedat’s group also calls the TSA’s comparison to cosmic radiation misleading… because those higher X-ray energies and health consequences are appropriately understood in terms of whole body volume dose.
Other points brought up by Sedat’s group include:
1. Independent safety studies do not appear to exist. The quantity of radiation exposure has not been assessed. Instead, only an indirect test based on whole body exposure was made.
2. The danger is different — and higher — for the large percentage of travelers over age 65, who are especially at risk from the mutagenic effects of X-rays (meaning the radiation causes gene mutations — more on this risk in a moment…)
3. A fraction of the female population is particularly sensitive to mutation-provoking radiation leading to breast cancer. Because these women have defects in their DNA repair mechanisms, they’re particularly prone to cancer.
4. Immune-compromised individuals — those with HIV or cancer — are likely to be at higher risk for cancer by this high skin radiation.
5. Risks to children and adolescents do not appear to have been fully studied. Ditto for pregnant women.
6. Because of the testicles’ proximity to the skin, this tissue is at risk for sperm mutation, presumably contributing to birth defects in the men’s offspring.
7. Effects of this radiation on the cornea and thymus do not appear to have been evaluated.
Their letter concludes with the following statement:
We would like to put our current concerns into perspective. As longstanding UCSF scientists and physicians, we have witnessed critical errors in decisions that have seriously affected the health of thousands of people in the United States. These unfortunate errors were made because of the failure to recognize potential adverse outcomes of decisions made at the federal level. Crises create a sense of urgency that frequently leads to hasty decisions where unintended consequences are not recognized. Examples include the failure of the CDC to recognize the risk of blood transfusions in the early stages of the AIDS epidemic, approval of drugs and devices by the FDA without sufficient review, and improper standards set by the EPA, to name a few.
Similarly, there has not been sufficient review of the intermediate and long-term effects of radiation exposure associated with airport scanners. 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. Modifications that reduce radiation exposure need to be explored as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, the TSA seemingly marches on with its agenda. The single-minded bullying and power-mongering of these big bureaucracies is a never ending source of wonder to me. I should be used to it at my age, but they always manage to surprise me by taking the oppression up a notch.
Despite the serious questions, officials claim that backscatter radiation still falls within the limits of safe radiation exposure. FDA’s Daniel Kassiday says, “We are confident that full-body-X-ray security products and practices do not pose a significant risk to the public health.”1
You’ll “hear from” more scientists in the following letter to the TSA…
3. At least one Congressman.
Congressman Dennis Kucinich of Ohio also wants more proof that backscatter technology is safe. Kucinich wrote to TSA Chief John Pistole, requesting information and clarification concerning the safety of airport scanners. I don’t find myself on the same side of many issues as Mr. Kucinich, but he got this one right.
Here is the full text of his letter (italics mine) dated Nov. 24, 2010:
Dear Mr. Pistole:
I write with concerns about the potential health effects of the “backscatter x-ray” technology that TSA is using widely to screen airline passengers. Workers and travelers are likely to sustain the highest exposures to the technology, which has the potential to cause chromosome damage and can lead to cancer.
TSA argues publicly that the amount of radiation exposure is small. TSA claims that the exposure is equivalent to the amount of radiation the passenger will receive in two minutes of flying at 30,000 feet.
Assessments of risk such as those upon which TSA has relied are sometimes based on false assumptions that downplay the actual risk to individuals. For example, we know that there is no amount of radiation that is harmless. It is the cumulative amount of radiation that causes chromosome damage and cancer. I wonder whether the numerical risk cited by TSA rests on the assumption that the exposure in question occurs in isolation.
If a person were receiving radiation exposure only from the backscatter technology, the risk could be dramatically different than if the backscatter exposure were to occur in addition to other exposures, such as those from flying at altitude.
Furthermore, the amount of exposure is greater than TSA contends. According to Dr. David Brenner of Columbia University:
“The number given [by TSA] is what the whole body receives on average. However, the whole body isn’t actually receiving the radiation exposure. The skin on the scalp receives 20 times the average dose that is typically quoted by TSA and throughout the industry. It’s still a low dose, but it’s much more than what’s usually said.”
Dr. Brenner believes that this kind of exposure could lead to additional cases of basal cell cancers:
“The concern is that radiation promotes pre-existing damage….Since the cancer rate is so high for basal cell carcinoma, this number could be multiplied further by radiation risks.”
These concerns are echoed by David Argard, a biochemist at the University of California:
“While the dose would be safe if it were distributed throughout the volume of the entire body, the dose to the skin may be dangerously high.”
“[T]here really is no threshold of low dose being OK. Any dose of X-rays produces some potential risk.”
And, of course, all of this assumes that the amount of exposure is only what is intended. In a TSA memo to Robin Kane, Assistant Administrator of operational Process & Technology dated October 9, 2010, Domenic Bianchini, the General Manager of the Passenger Screening Program noted that the scanners are tested twice; once at the factory and once upon installation, to ensure emissions levels are as expected.
But unexpectedly high exposures can occur without knowledge if the machine malfunctions or if there is operator error.
Peter Rez, a professor of physics at Arizona State University, believes that the possibility of a malfunction is an even greater concern:
“The thing that worries me the most, is not what happens if the machine works as advertised, but what happens if it doesn’t.”
In 2009, it was revealed that a hospital had over-exposed over 200 patients to radiation at 8 times the normal amount during CT scans. The exposures persisted for 18 months. According the New York Times, “The hospital blamed its own flawed procedures for the overdoses.” In another case in a different hospital, a 2½-year-old boy received 151 CT scans in about an hour. In both cases, the machine did not prevent the excessive exposure.
Because the safety of the backscatter machines is far from settled, and because the health of the flying public and airport workers is at stake, a closer look is warranted. Please provide the scientific research upon which TSA relies to characterize the risk to airline passengers and to workers, including TSA employees and non-TSA employees.
In addition, abiding trust in the machines to perform as hoped is misplaced. The risk to workers and travelers of incurring radiation exposure beyond that expected by the TSA is sufficient to warrant an aggressive monitoring program. For decades, radiation dosimeters have discovered unplanned radiation exposure to workers, workers’ families, and the general public in settings as disparate as nuclear power plants and commercial laundry facilities.
The absolute minimum TSA must provide under the circumstances is a monitoring program that includes personal monitors for non-TSA and TSA employees, including those working near the luggage x-ray machines; stationary monitors for areas in which incidental or direct radiation exposure is expected; and monitors for randomly selected passengers, who are receiving the bulk of the intended exposure. I stand ready to help TSA implement such a program in the coming weeks.
Dennis J. Kucinich
Member of Congress2
Whew! Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to find out what Mr. Pistole’s answer was.
Most Americans are going with the flow and not questioning the safety or efficacy of this technology. Shouldn’t you be concerned?
Perhaps especially in light of just who is pushing the hardest for these machines…
Can you say… “conflict of interest?”
Chief among the people hawking these machines is former DHS secretary Michael Chertoff, who now heads the Chertoff Group… which represents one of the leading manufacturers of whole-body-imaging machines, Rapiscan Systems.
For days after the “underwear bomber” attack, Chertoff made the rounds on the media promoting the scanners, calling the bombing attempt “a very vivid lesson in the value of that machinery” — all while ‘conveniently’ failing to disclose his cozy relationship to Rapiscan… or the benefits he would receive from selling hundreds of $150,000 machines to his cushy connections in Washington, D.C.3,4
Chertoff’s advocacy for this technology dates back to his time in the Bush Administration. In 2005, Homeland Security ordered the government’s first batch of the scanners — five from California-based Rapiscan Systems.
Could this shed some light on why the TSA is so quick to dismiss the many health and privacy concerns people have?
Assessing your own risk is a tricky exercise…
“We do know that x-rays knock electrons from ions, which creates mutations in human cells,” says Dr. Olga Naidenko, senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group.5
We also know:
a) There is NO safe dose of ionizing radiation
b) Chromosomal mutations are often irreparable
c) The effect is cumulative (the more you receive, the worse the effects)
d) DNA changes are proven to lead to cancer.
Research shows that one in every 20 Americans has increased sensitivity to radiation. These are people with gene mutations that make them less able to repair x-ray damage to their DNA. Unfortunately, we don’t have a quick and easy test to find out exactly who those individuals are.
Unlike some other mutagens, ionizing radiation has access to the genetic molecules of every internal organ, if the organ is within the x-ray beam… and has the chance of inducing damage that defies repair.
Children are also more vulnerable to radiation damage, because they have more dividing cells at any one time.
Dr. David Brenner from Columbia University projects the most likely risk from airport scanners is basal cell carcinoma (a relatively harmless form of skin cancer). The question is… how much do you want to risk?
Will you keep flying?
If you want to — or need to — fly… one option is to fly at night whenever possible to lower your intake of cosmic radiation.
As far as airport security goes, you need to take a hard look at your choices — none of which may be attractive.
Especially if you’ve had cancer in the past or present, are immune-compromised, or possess other known risk factors like the Standard American Diet, smoking, alcohol consumption, and sedentary lifestyle… you may find that opting out of additional radiation is your smartest choice. You can ask to be patted down instead.
Also realize that despite the TSA’s assurances, your government has likewise assured you of the ‘safety’ of many things in the past 100 years which in the end proved not so. Make them show you the proof before you buy into their assumption of safety.
Personally, I long ago decided to drive instead of fly whenever that was a choice. For journeys that involve one day’s driving, I choose to drive because flying usually eats up a day anyway by the time you take into account getting to the airport early, driving to and from the airports, and waiting for connecting flights (some of which you’re destined to miss). If there are two people in the car and it’s a one-day journey, driving definitely makes more sense.
If you drive, you come and go when you please — no deadlines. And when you drive you can take along whatever junk you want — extra pair of shoes, umbrella, big winter coat — all the things you might leave behind if you’re packing for a flight. And you can easily haul back whatever it strikes your fancy to buy on your travels.
Even for two-day drives (roughly a thousand miles) I often drive if I have time. I made these choices long before the full-body scanners came along because flying has become such a miserable experience. It used to be enjoyable, but not anymore.
Who knows? You might even see the country in a whole new light again — especially in light of all the unanswered questions about airport screening machines.