Full-body scanner cancer risks “glossed over” by TSA

By » Tue, November 8 2011

scanner 2 Full body scanner cancer risks glossed over by TSA

Today, the United States has begun marching millions of airline passengers through the X-ray body scanners, parting ways with countries in Europe and elsewhere that have concluded that such widespread use of even low-level radiation poses an unacceptable health risk. The government is rolling out the X-ray scanners despite having a safer alternative that the Transportation Security Administration says is also highly effective.

A ProPublica/PBS NewsHour investigation of how this decision was made shows that in post-9/11 America, security issues can trump even long-established medical conventions. The final call to deploy the X-ray machines was made not by the FDA, which regulates drugs and medical devices, but by the TSA, an agency whose primary mission is to prevent terrorist attacks.

Research suggests that anywhere from six to 100 U.S. airline passengers each year could get cancer from the machines. Still, the TSA has repeatedly defined the scanners as “safe,” glossing over the accepted scientific view that even low doses of ionizing radiation—the kind beamed directly at the body by the X-ray scanners—increase the risk of cancer.

There’s a special type of bullshit that comes along with these full-body X-ray scanners.

First of all is the assumption that any amount of radiation is “safe”. That’s like saying any amount of lead is safe. We all know what happens to people who have had lead exposure, and there’s a reason it’s essentially banned in most countries.

But that’s not the same with radiation. There are three reasons, I think, for this. The first is that you’re constantly being irradiated. Just not by X-rays. While X-rays are electromagnetic radiation, it’s long enough in wavelength to constitute a real threat to cell structure. That’s why dentists wear lead aprons.

The TSA has stated that one flash of the scanner is the equivalent to X-bullshit number of minutes of air flight; I’ve heard anywhere between six and 20 minutes. Once again, this is a gross misrepresentation of the type of radiation but also the quantity. The likelihood that radiation causes damage to cells isn’t determined by the total amount of exposure, but rather, by the level of exposure per instance. In other words, compressing twenty or even six minutes of radiation (and a different, much more dangerous type of radiation than atmospheric) into the 100th of a second of a scan is orders of magnitude riskier than air travel alone.

Or put it like this: you spend half your day not breathing, neither inhaling nor exhaling, and you’re just fine. So you should be equally just fine if you stopped breathing for twelve hours straight, right?

And finally, we’re more afraid of terrorists than we are of cancer. To-date, terrorism in the US has directly killed, what, 10,000 people? Less? Since September 11th, terrorists have killed fourteen people.

How many people have died from cancer? Even just a specific type of cancer, like, say, skin cancer?

Yeah. Worrying about terrorists at airports is like working on an offshore oil rig and being afraid of sharks. Wrong priorities.

But I am also completely not surprised that the TSA would rather roll out machines that don’t work and also make people sick than actually do something about security. Because the things that actually defeat threats are not visible to people. You can’t wave intelligence and scrutiny in the face of the public; vigilance is transparent. You gotta have something tangible for people to think you’re doing something about safety.

The worst part about all this is that the machines really do not work:

Detection of contraband can be foiled in these systems. Because front and back views are obtained, low Z materials can only be reliable detected if they are packed outside the sides of the body or with hard edges, while high Z materials are well seen when placed in front or back of the body, but not to the sides. Even if exposure were to be increased significantly, normal anatomy would make a dangerous amount of plastic explosive with tapered edges difficult if not impossible to detect.”


I’d rather just get groped. Reminds me, I gotta get a kilt

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