The dangers of the new airport scanners installed by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) go beyond the awkward, self-conscious feeling of having a stranger take an X-ray of your nude body. According to a growing number of scientists, the radiation these scanners emit will infect a number of people each year with skin cancer.
The TSA has downplayed all such concerns, insisting the risk of exposure via the backscatter X-ray scanners – which operate through ionizing radiation – is “tiny” and “miniscule.” But not all scientists agree.
Arizona State University physics professor Peter Rez and health physics professor Ken Mossman evaluated the technology in the November 9 issue of the peer-reviewed journal Radiation Protection and Dosimetry.
Rez told CNN, “I came to the conclusion that although low, the dose was higher than they said.” He estimated the TSA understated the amount of radiation by a factor of five to ten. (TSA claims the scanners expose individuals to the equivalent of two minutes in flight; Rez says it’s more like 10-20 minutes.) And there’s more:
The TSA uses a method called effective dose, which averages the radiation throughout the entire body, Rez said.
He explained that the method is misleading because the skin absorbs almost all of the radiation.
The odds of contracting fatal skin cancer from just one trip through a backscatter machine, Rez said, are one in 30 million.
The chances of dying in a terrorist attack, Rez said, are also one in 30 million.
“The probability is about the same as the thing you are trying to prevent,” Rez said.
If Rez’s statistics are correct, they guarantee a number of people will contract skin cancer each year from the new scanners.
According to Rez, that means at least one to two American citizens each year will get cancer courtesy of the U.S. government.
It would also mean another 10-12 foreigners will be inflicted with cancer by Uncle Sam.
Rez is far from the only scientist concerned about the possibility. “[TSA agents] say the risk is minimal, but statistically someone is going to get skin cancer from these X-rays,” said Dr. Michael Love. Love oversees Johns Hopskins University’s X-ray lab in the department of biophysics and biophysical chemistry.
The controversy is not new. In April, four science or medical faculty at the University of California-San Francisco wrote a letter to the Science Czar detailing their concerns. The Food and Drug Administration and Department of Homeland Security replied six months later with an assurance that all was well. One of the UCSF professors, Dr. Marc Shuman, says the government’s analysis is “seriously flawed.” The four are in the process of writing a response to DHS.
These scientists dealt only with standard passengers who go through the scanners a few times a year. The hazards for TSA screeners and pilots, who go through or perform many more scans, are much higher. And their data assume all the machines perform normally. Rez believes airport scanners are likely to malfunction because of their extensive use.
Many airline pilots – who are subjected to a greater amount of radiation because of their profession – have already decided to opt out. Captain David Bates, president of the Allied Pilots Association, encouraged his rank-and-file to skip the extra dose of radiation and opt for the pat-down feel-up. “No pilot at American Airlines should subject themselves to the needless privacy invasion and potential health risks caused by the body scanner,” he wrote in a letter to his members. “Politely decline exposure and request alternative screening,” even if “the enhanced pat-down is a demeaning experience.”
The increased risk of cancer is not only perilous but needless. The TSA has an equally effective (read: invasive) machine, known as the millimeter wave, which uses radio frequencies to inspect passengers. It has no known health effects. Yet only about half of the machines in airports are millimeter waves.
Maurine Fanguy of the TSA’s Office of Security Technology said the agency has refrained from deploying the non-carcinogenic technology exclusively because it wishes “to have more than one vendor available in any one class of product. That allows us to get more competitive pricing, and it makes sure that we don’t cut off one avenue of technology that would potentially not allow us to take advantage of innovation later.”
In other words, the government is boosting the public’s risk of cancer because it wants to save money. The first and only thrifty instinct the government has shown requires cutting corners on public safety.
Interestingly, the four UCSF professors addressed their letter of concern to Science Czar John Holdren. This author was the first writer to expose John Holdren’s radicalism, especially his support for population control in his 1977 book Ecoscience. He and co-authors Paul and Anne Ehrlich wrote, “The neo-Malthusian view proposes…population limitation and redistribution of wealth.” They concluded, “On these points, we find ourselves firmly in the neo-Malthusian camp.” In their view, “compulsory population-control laws, even including laws requiring compulsory abortion, could be sustained under the existing constitution.” (Emphasis added.)
The term “neo-Malthusian” denotes those followers of Thomas Malthus, a 19th century British economist who believed overpopulation was the greatest problem facing mankind. In “An Essay on the Principle of Population” Malthus wrote, “All the children who are born, beyond what would be required to keep up the population to a desired level, must necessarily perish, unless room be made for them by the death of grown persons.” He added his followers should “court the return of the plague.”
Cancer is not the only side effect of excess radiation. Sterility is another. According to the New York State Department of Health, “In men, a single dose of 15 rem can cause temporary sterility, and a single dose between 400 and 500 rem can cause permanent sterility. In women, a total dose of 400 rem received over two or three exposures has been known to cause permanent sterility.” Ordinary exposure, according to the TSA, would provide no problem. They claim, “Scanned passengers may absorb from 0.1 to 5 microsieverts of radiation.”
The TSA began deploying the backscatter technology in 2007, under the Bush administration. But the Obama administration has spent hundreds of millions of dollars purchasing hundreds more. And an administration not especially obsessed with security has issued guidelines before the busiest travel season of the year requiring all travelers to undergo a scan or submit to a public fondling.
Whatever its motives, the consequences could well be deadly.