Where’s the Evidence Proving TSA’s Backscatter Scanners are Safe?

By Dr. Mercola

The U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) first began using advanced imaging technology in airports nationwide in 2007. But just how “tested,” and how safe, are the TSA’s backscatter machines?

The TSA1 and Department of Homeland Security will tell you they’ve been extensively tested and that these machines are very safe. But if that’s true, why did both houses of Congress file bills this year demanding that the TSA and DHS produce proof of their safety claims with an independent laboratory study?2,3

Could it be that Congressmen – who often fly as part of their jobs – are worried that maybe those safety claims are not as documented as the TSA claims?

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has been making similar demands of the TSA through lawsuits and Freedom of Information Act requests for several years. The group has even filed a lawsuit to suspend the deployment of body scanners at US airports, pending an independent review:4

“On July 2, 2010, EPIC petitioned5 the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals to suspend the body scanner program, stressing its core assertion that “the TSA has acted outside of its regulatory authority and with profound disregard for the statutory and constitutional rights of air travelers.

EPIC asserted that the federal agency’s controversial program violated the Administrative Procedures Act, the Privacy Act, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Video Voyeurism Prevention Act, and the Fourth Amendment.

On July 15, 2011, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled6 that the agency had violated the Administrative Procedures Act by implementing body scanners as a primary screening method without first undertaking public notice and comment rulemaking.

The Court ordered the agency to ‘promptly’ undertake the proper rulemaking procedures and allow the public to comment on the body scanner program. To date, the agency has made no visible progress toward complying with the Court’s order.”

So far, this is what EPIC has found through an FOIA request:

  • TSA employees have identified cancer clusters allegedly linked to radiation exposure while operating body scanners and other screening technology. However, the agency failed to issue employees dosimeters – safety devices that would warn of radiation exposure.
  • The DHS has publicly mischaracterized the findings of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), stating that NIST “affirmed the safety” of full body scanners. NIST has stated that the Institute did not, in fact, test full body scanners for safety, and that the Institute does not do product testing.
  • A Johns Hopkins University study revealed that radiation zones around body scanners could exceed the “General Public Dose Limit.”
  • A NIST study warns airport screeners to avoid standing next to full body scanners.

Rogue Federal Agency Refuses to Comply with the Law

On July 18, The Washington Times ran an editorial7 about the TSA’s defiance of the courts. Remember, it’s been over a year since the D.C. Circuit court ruled the TSA had to “promptly” comply with the Administrative Procedure Act, which requires public hearings and a 90-day public comment period. In a November 9, 2011 affidavit, TSA acting general manager James Clarkson responded that “While TSA has prioritized the rulemaking directed by the Opinion, TSA has many important rulemakings in progress, many of them required by statute,” essentially telling the court and the rest of us that they’re too busy to address it.

On July 17, 2012, EPIC again asked the D.C. Circuit court of appeals to compel the agency to comply with the law, and the court has now demanded the TSA respond by August 30.

“It’s a widely held belief that the agency’s hasty embrace of expensive, X-rated x-ray machines has more to do with closed-door lobbying efforts of manufacturers than a deliberate consideration of the devices’ merits,” The Washington Times states.8

“The last thing TSA wants is the public-relations disaster of having to collect and publish the horror tales from Americans subjected to humiliation from the nude photography and intrusive ‘pat-down’ groping sessions. Scanner manufacturer Rapidscan Systems, which has invested $2.2 million in wining and dining administration officials and lawmakers since 2007, probably isn’t keen on broader public discussion either.”

The Security Implications of Nude Body Scanners

On March 6, 2012 engineer Jonathan Corbett posted a video on YouTube, demonstrating how easily the “nude body scanners” can be defeated, and why these machines actually make air travel LESS safe, if we’re actually worried about terrorists boarding planes with guns and other lethal objects on their person.

Furthermore, as explained by Miles O’Brien in the video in the next section below, these machines are also unlikely to detect certain explosives, and likely would NOT have caught the infamous “underwear bomber” – the case that presaged the rapid release of these backscatter scanners in the first place.

Corbett was one of the first to sue the United States when the scanners were initially rolled out, charging that the machines were a violation of the 4th amendment of the US constitution. In July, he filed a petition to have his case heard by the Supreme Court. Corbett also claims he was falsely arrested by TSA agents at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport last year.

According to The Washington Times:9

As part of the agency’s convoluted legal defense, TSA officials argue transportation security officers are not law enforcement officers because they ‘do not have the authority to execute searches.’ That’s a rather curious assertion for an agency whose sole mission is to rifle through the belongings of others.

It’s time to admit the post-Sept. 11 experiment in having the government take over airport screening duties has been a colossal flop. TSA has defied the Administrative Procedures Act, an appellate court, the public will and common decency. It’s not enough just to pull the plug on the scanners; the plug should be pulled on TSA itself.”

WeWontFly.com also recently posted a story of a family traveling with a .22 caliber pistol, magazine, and seven rounds of ammunition in their luggage – not once, but twice, at Charlotte’s international airport and JFK in New York – without any of the items being detected by the TSA.10

The Health Implications of Backscatter X-Ray Machines

So, getting back to the health implications of the backscatter scanners. As explained in the following video, the machines work by emitting a narrow beam of high-intensity (ionizing) radiation, which quickly moves across your body in a sweeping, rotating motion. One of the worries with the technology is the potential for mechanical malfunctions, which could result in the high-intensity beam stopping in one location and resulting in over-exposure.

As reported by Miles O’Brien in a NewsHour broadcast11 on December 1, 2011, the European Union actually banned scanning devices that expose the public to ionizing radiation, even if the exposure is miniscule, at the end of last year. The reason for the decision was quite simply, “because there are alternatives.” The US would do well to consider such logic as well… Especially when you consider the dubious nature of the alleged safety testing of these machines.

Watch Behind the Backscatter on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

This is a Flash-based video and may not be viewable on mobile devices.

Could Backscatter Scanners Cause Cancer?

As summarized by WeWontFly.com:

“Backscatter X-ray uses ionizing radiation, a known cumulative health hazard, to produce images of passengers’ bodies. Children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those with defective DNA repair mechanisms are considered to be especially susceptible to the type of DNA damage caused by ionizing radiation.

Also at high risk are those who have had, or currently have, skin cancer.

Ionizing radiation’s effects are cumulative, meaning that each time you are exposed you are adding to your risk of developing cancer. Since the dosage of radiation from the backscatter X-ray machines is absorbed almost entirely by the skin and tissue directly under the skin, averaging the dose over the whole body gives an inaccurate picture of the actual harm.”

Last year, ProPublica published a letter to John Holdren, senior advisor to President Barack Obama on science and technology, written by five professors who reveal that there has not actually been any verifiable scientific testing of the safety of airport scanners – and that the levels of radiation being used are likely much higher than the public has been led to believe. These scientists believe the high quality images produced cannot possibly be obtained with the low levels of radiation described, and that the actual level may be 45 times higher than what the manufacture is claiming.

The supposed “testing” of the Rapiscan Secure 1000, the most widely deployed X-ray scanner, was actually performed on a mock-up of spare parts “said to be similar to those that are parts of the Rapiscan system.” In addition, none of these tests have ever been peer reviewed – the data and even the names of the researchers who carried out the tests have been kept secret from the public.

According to the letter, as printed by ProPublica:12

“The problem remains that the safety of the X-ray airport scanners has not been independently verified… the Johns Hopkins report,13 which is the more detailed and significant because it refers to the widely deployed Single Pose system, does not hold to critical principles of scientific reporting… [T]here is no way to repeat any of these measurements… The tests were performed by the manufacturer using the manufacturer’s questionable test procedures… [T]he independent testing of the safety of these specific scanners has not been rigorous nor has it been held to the standards usually associated with new devices”.

…It is still unclear how much damage to cells occur with low dose x-rays. One of the most important points in the ‘Red Flags’ section of our letter of April 2010 was that potential x-ray damage, primarily to skin cells and adjacent tissues, would lead to a ‘damage response’ by the cells.

Thus, damaged cells would show DNA damage of various kinds and/or an increase in concentration of many proteins that attempt to repair the damage. Being able to demonstrate that the x-irradiation does not induce the ‘damage response’ as compared to a control sample just exposed to background radiation would establish that the machines at least do not have a high (potentially damaging) x-ray intensity.

Interestingly, the 8-page HHS letter response did not even comment on this crucial point.

The research community has the methodology to unambiguously determine in a very sensitive way whether there is damage to cells after x-irradiation from the airport scanners. For example, a recent study using tissue culture cells… has shown that with low dose x-rays (1 mSv, a dose coming within 100 to 1,000 times that of the potential x-ray scanner dose), the cells have unrepaired DNA double-strand breaks that are detectable for several days…

Because… the whole body is exposed to the x-ray scanning… and therefore many cells could, summed up in toto, be damaged… Where are the studies utilizing mutant mice… looking for enhanced mutations/cancer? This does not have to be an exhaustive search, but a small pilot study looking for mutations/cancer to confirm that the beam intensity is truly small would be sufficient. In summary, this kind of research has not been done with the x-ray scanners.

An additional point regarding biological damage from x-ray sources is that usually radiation biology deals with the integrated radiation dose. However, there is a phenomenon known as dose rate… which could significantly influence damage. Dose rate, however, is poorly studied. In the few documented studies… it was shown that for the same overall dose, a 2-5 fold increase in damage can result from a high dose rate (for the short exposure) compared to a reduced dose rate (at a longer exposure time). The x-ray airport scanners can be characterized by a high dose rate… which adds additional unknowns for the potential damage by this radiation…”

History Tells Us to Beware of Ionizing Radiation Technology Safety Claims

How can we be certain that errors will not occur with the X-ray scanners when malfunctions are virtually always a risk of using technology? For example, even CT scans were once deemed to have far lower levels of radiation than we know they have today.

As Dr. Russell Blaylock says:

“As for the assurances we have been given by such organization as the American College of Radiology, we must keep in mind that they assured us that the CT scans were safe and that the radiation was equal to one chest X-ray. Forty years later we learn that the dose is extremely high; it is thought to have caused cancer in a significant number of people, and the dose is actually equal to 1,000 chest X-rays.”

A 2007 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine14 estimated that 0.4 percent of all cancers in the US may be attributable to the radiation from CT studies – confirming how profoundly inaccurate original safety assessments of this technology were, as well as how harmful X-ray-based diagnostic technologies really are. These errors of the past should indeed serve as cautionary tales when making safety claims for brand new technologies.

How many times will a belated “oops!” suffice before we demand the return of the precautionary principle, as is already being followed in Europe?

Hopefully, the TSA will comply with the court’s demands for a response by August 30. We need to have public hearings about the many issues, running the gamut from potential health hazards to violations of privacy and good-old-fashioned decency, posed by these invasive scanners.

Who Stands to Gain Financially from Full-Body Scanners?

As in so many other instances, our legal and civil rights system is being willfully manipulated and trampled, and our health is put at risk, all for the sake of private and corporate profits. In this case, the former homeland security chief and co-author of the PATRIOT act, Michael Chertoff, is a primary promoter of full-body scanners, and is a paid consultant for the companies that sell them!

The mandate to use these scanners is yet another blatant conflict of interest that erodes personal freedom in the name of “security” and places corporate profits ahead of public health.

Tips for Reducing Your Cumulative Radiation Load While Flying

Europe has already taken a strong stance against the use of these scanners, and in the United States if we have enough people objecting to this new technology we can get them to stop using it altogether. It is far too man-power intensive for agents to manually inspect everyone with the enhanced pat down. In 2010, when massive numbers of people were planning on opting out in protest, they shut all the X-ray scanners off that day and ran people through the older ones. If 10 percent of us choose to opt out regularly, my guess is that they will shut the machines off permanently.

Personally, as a very frequent air traveler, I ALWAYS opt-out of the x-ray scanner. Even if the radiation dose is minute (and that’s a big IF), I’m not willing to risk my health by exposing my entire body to any avoidable dose on a regular basis. Fortunately, I fly frequently enough that in Chicago I am TSA PRE, which means I get to use a special security line and do not have to take off my shoes or belt, or take the computer out of my bag, and there is no total body scan or pat down done.

An interesting point you will want to consider is that in order to use the body scanner you must be able to raise your arms above your head. If you can’t, then TSA has to send you through the FAR safer magnetic scanner and they typically do NOT pat you down. 

If you’re exposed to other forms of radiation through CT scans, mammograms and other medical procedures, your exposure could easily reach dangerous levels, and this is why it makes sense to avoid unnecessary radiation exposures as much as possible. One of the strategies I use is to take 8-10 mg of astaxanthin regularly as it has been shown to lessen ionizing radiation damage.

If you opt out of the scanner and go for the pat-down, I also suggest you keep hygiene in mind. Make certain that TSA agents put on a fresh pair of gloves before touching you and your child.

As for the humiliation factor that these enhanced TSA security checks present, I would encourage you to contact your local government officials and state representatives, or join the “We Won’t Fly” campaign, which also lists 24 additional ways you can make your voice heard on this issue.

We will be happy to hear your thoughts

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