April 01, 2015
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Are Airport Scanners Safe?
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Are Airport Scanners Safe?


Three articles have been published recently examining the radiation risk posed by airport X-ray scanners. All three agree that these scanners pose at most, a very small risk to average passengers, though they disagree on the details.

When estimating the risk of cancer from a low radiation dose, scientists extrapolate downward, assuming linearity: reduce the radiation dose 100-fold and the cancer risk is also reduced 100-fold. While it has never been proven that this is true, it's the best model available.

In 2010, the Transportation Safety Authority began increased use of full body-scanners in airports across the United States. There are two types of scanner. One type uses millimeter-wave radiation, extremely low energy, non-ionizing radiation. The other type uses low-dose X-rays, which are ionizing radiation. Because ionizing radiation can cause cancer, there have been concerns expressed about the safety of the X-ray scanners.

The TSA allows passengers who do not wish to be scanned to undergo a physical pat-down.

A Risk or Are Concerns Over-Inflated?

Two of the articles on screening appear in the April 2011 issue of Radiology. Airport Full-Body Screening: What is the Risk? was first published online by Archives of Internal Medicine on March 28, 2011 and will appear in a future print edition of the journal. The two pieces present different takes on the level of risk screening poses.

David Brenner, Ph.D, D.Sc is the director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia Medical Center. In his piece, Dr. Brenner says that because he only flies occasionally, he has no hesitation about going through airport X-ray scanners. But since there will potentially be up to one billion such scans performed every year, he expresses concern over the long-term consequences of these scans, particularly to frequent fliers and airline personnel. While the risks from an individual scan are small, some fliers may develop cancers from them and people who are scanned hundreds of times a year are at greatest risk. They may wish to opt for pat-downs instead.

On the low- or no-risk side is David Schauer, Sc.D, C.H.P., executive director of the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurement. Dr. Schauer argues in his article in Radiology that the risk to an individual from airport scanning is negligible and that even critics of scanning agree with this. Schauer says that the mathematical process of taking a tiny average risk and multiplying it by large populations or time periods into a larger overall risk gives a distorted image of risk, artificially inflating a risk that an individual would accept in their daily life into something much more dangerous.

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