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TSA Wants to Know if Airport Body Scanners Are Nuking You


The Transportation Security Administration is deciding to determine, once and for all, whether the so-called “nude” body scanners being deployed at airports nationwide are nuking passengers at unacceptable radiation levels.

The TSA is commissioning the National Academy of Sciences — a private non-profit filled with engineer and science scholars — to set the record straight. The academy’s mission is to review three other body-scanner studies — which have come under fire from the scientific community — and to also study passenger screening and manufacturing procedures “to estimate radiation exposure resulting from backscatter X-ray advanced imaging technology.”

A small community of scientists have raised health alarms over a type of “advanced imaging technology” scanner installed at U.S. airports. Already controversial on privacy grounds, the AIT scanners emit radiation to allow airport screeners to see through a passenger’s clothing to check for concealed explosives and weapons.

The move to satisfy the public and even congressional concerns that the machines are safe comes after millions of passengers have gone through the machines, and a whopping five years after TSA began deploying them.

The development also comes a year after a federal appeals court said the TSA breached federal law in 2009 when it formally adopted the airport scanners as the “primary” method of screening. The judges said the TSA violated the Administrative Procedures Act for failing to have a 90-day public comment period, and ordered the agency to undertake one.

That notice-and-comment period is expected to begin in the coming spring. The academy’s involvement is likely to head off, at least temporarily, allegations that the government has not adequately addressed health concerns.

The TSA is not commissioning further privacy or efficacy studies. Last year, Threat Level published a three-part series on whether the machines were effective, constitutional and safe.

At issue are the so-called backscatter-technology body scanners produced by Rapiscan Systems, which expose travelers to a small X-ray dose. A competing scanner deployed at airports — those deploying millimeter-wave technology produced by L-3 Communications – do not expose travelers to X-rays.

The TSA and Rapiscan say the machines are safe and expose passengers to a minuscule amount of radiation. But in a 2010 letter to the White House, academics argued the government did not adequately study the backscatter X-ray devices. They also noted the failure of the Centers for Disease Control to recognize the risks of blood transfusions at the outset of the AIDS epidemic.

The TSA has ordered about 500 of the Rapiscan devices at about $180,000 each.

The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, which analyzed the Rapiscan 1000 at the company’s Los Angeles office, has published the leading and most often-cited study (.pdf). The 49-page report, released in a redacted form, concludes that the machines leak virtually no radiation to TSA staff and nearby passengers, and expose the traveler being scanned to only a fraction of the maximum exposure level deemed medically safe.

The Food and Drug Administration and the Army Public Health Command came to similar conclusions.

To be sure, the scientific debate has played out in the statistical hinterlands. Many critics of the technology agree that the increased cancer risk to any individual traveler is infinitesimal. But U.S. airports handle 700 million passengers annually — a large enough number that a small uptick in overall cancer risk can scale to a real-life concern.

If the scientist critics are right, it boils down to the cold calculus of whether more lives are saved by the marginal increase in security than are put to risk by the marginal dangers of the technology.



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