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New Report Likely to Fuel Debate Over TSA Scanners

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

by Michael Grabell, ProPublica

A new report from the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security is likely to fan rather than extinguish the debate over the safety of X-ray body scanners deployed at airports across the country.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and other lawmakers have called on the Transportation Security Administration to conduct a new, independent health study. No such tests were carried out for the report, which instead relied on previous radiation tests, most of which have been available on TSA’s website.

The amount of radiation emitted by the body scanners, known as backscatters, is “negligible” and “below acceptable limits,” according to the report obtained by ProPublica and scheduled for public release on Tuesday.

But the 28-page report also notes that not all TSA screeners have completed required radiation safety training. Inspectors found inconsistencies in how the machines are calibrated to ensure radiation safety and image quality. And the TSA made more than 3,500 maintenance calls in the first year the scanners were deployed, meaning that, on average, each machine needed service more than once a month.

X-ray body scanners became part of routine screening at airports nationwide after the underwear bomber tried to blow up a plane on Christmas 2009. The machines emit very small doses of ionizing radiation, the type of radiation that has been shown to cause cancer.

Radiation experts who have been critical of the TSA acknowledge that the machines emit only tiny amounts of radiation. But they say that as tens of millions of airline passengers are exposed for routine screening, it is likely that a few of those people will develop cancer from the machines.

ProPublica reported in November that the TSA has glossed over the scientific nuance in declaring the machines safe, that the United States was almost alone in the world in deploying the X-ray scanners and that the Food and Drug Administration went against its own advisory panel in allowing the machines to fall under voluntary standards.

A day after the story, TSA administrator John Pistole agreed to a request by Collins to conduct a new, independent health study of the scanners. But a week later, Pistolebacktracked saying this report, then still being finalized, would render a new study unnecessary.

“We believe the report fully endorses TSA’s extensive efforts to keep the traveling public safe,” Pistole said in a response letter that was attached to the report. “As a result of intense research, analysis and testing, TSA concludes that potential health risks from a full-body screening with a general-use X-ray security system are miniscule.”

Calls to request comment from Collins and other lawmakers were not immediately returned. We will update when we hear back.

The report notes that an airline passenger would have to be screened 47 times per day to reach the annual radiation dose limits set by professional organizations. The inspectors said that no accidental radiation overdoses have ever occurred from the scanners.

The inspector general’s office did not test the machines but instead reviewed radiation measurements taken by the manufacturer’s maintenance contractors and Army health physicists.

The report does not address the potential health effects of exposing tens of millions of people to low-dose radiation. Nor does it weigh the risk and benefit against a safer type of body scanner that uses the electromagnetic waves, which have not been linked to cancer. That machine, known as a millimeter-wave scanner, is already used by the TSA in dozens of airports, such as Atlanta Hartsfield, Dallas-Fort Worth and San Francisco.

The report also raises questions about maintenance. From May 2010 to May 2011, the TSA made 3,778 service calls in response to mechanical problems with the backscatter units. That works out to 10 calls per day, or an average of more than 15 calls per machine per year. But the report noted that only 2 percent of those calls were significant enough to require a radiation test.

Although the inspectors did not find any scanners that had been calibrated improperly, they found that some airports calibrated the machines less frequently than others and recorded the results differently.

The inspector general recommended that the TSA develop a process to ensure that all screeners receive radiation safety training. Several screeners told the inspectors that they were unable to complete online training because of computer delays and time constraints associated with doing their jobs.

Last month, a group of six Republican and Democratic senators on the homeland security committee introduced a bill that would require the TSA to post signs about the radiation at the front of security checkpoints and to hire an independent laboratory for a health study. House Republicans filed a companion bill in mid-February.

Officials in Broward County, Florida, recently voted to demand more information from the TSA on the safety of scanners in use at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. They are now reviewing the agency’s response.

And in Alaska, a state lawmaker who decided to take a ferry back from Seattle rather than undergo a pat-down required to fly, last week proposed bills to outlaw the use of body scanners in that state and to study the health effects of airport screening.

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One comment

  1. And when the next would be bomber has a device in a body cavity will all of you that submit to the current radiation exposure or TSA molestation submit to a body cavity search? I will not subject myself nor my family to needless radiation exposure nor TSA molestation. I will not be flying until the TSA changes these procedures. To the people that willingly surrender your 4th amendment right, bend over for the TSA officer to check your body cavities.

    The only prudent thing is to listen to the International Atomic Energy Agency and the International Commission on Radiological Protection: “The ICRP recommends that any exposure above the natural background radiation should be kept as low as reasonably achievable.” We can reasonably throw body scanners that emit ionizing radiation in the trash can, and we should.

    We could also listen to the National Academy of Sciences: “The committee has concluded that there is no compelling evidence to indicate a dose threshold below which the risk of tumor induction is zero.” All ionizing radiation, at any dose, causes cancer. Lower doses cause fewer cancers, but there is no safe dose.

    Read more about this, including an explanation of why scientific studies to establish the danger of very low doses of radiation aren’t feasible, at: http://www.iaea.org

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