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Scanners safety questioned

Craig D. Frazier | 10/3/2013, 3:35 p.m.

Remember all the hype behind the whole-body, X-ray scanners the government installed in airports across the country? The goverment was quick to boast how technologically advanced the scanners were and insisted the machines were so safe. Well, it appears they’re not so safe after all.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center says that there is evidence that the Department of Homeland Security failed to properly evaluate the level of risk from airport body scanners.

There are 244 full-body “backscatter” X-ray scanners in use at 36 airports in the United States. They operate almost nonstop, according to the Transportation Security Administration. Other airports use millimeter wave scanners, which look like glass telephone booths and do not use ionizing radiation or metal detectors.

According to an investigative report by ProPublica and “PBS NewsHour,” anywhere from six to 100 U.S. airline passengers could get cancer each year. Most experts agree that as long as the X-ray backscatter machines are functioning properly, passengers are exposed to extremely low doses of ionizing radiation.

Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officials scoff at scientists’ statements that measuring the effective radiation dose received by passengers is very complex, saying that it is not difficult, that the machines are inspected for problems at least once a year and that they are equipped with fail-safe shutoff systems.

TSA officials say that these low doses of radiation are safe for everyone, including pregnant women, infants and young children, even though children are significantly more sensitive to the effects of radiation.

However, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s study of TSA baggage screeners says that employees and others who work in the terminals and go through security daily are at greater risk.

The Department of Homeland Security announced several months ago that it had terminated its contract with the X-ray scanners’ manufacturer. The TSA signed a contract, potentially worth $245 million, with a third company that supplies a variety of “X-ray detection solutions.” It shouldn’t be too long before their machines begin appearing in airports.