Just in time to make you feel better about your holiday travels: full-body airport security scanners that use X-ray technologies are acknowledged to cause cancer. No problem in the US; but now they’re banned in the EU.
The European Commission, the executive body of the European Union, adopted new rules about security scanners at European airports. And at the very bottom of the press release that discusses all sorts of issues is this:
In order not to risk jeopardising citizens' health and safety, only security scanners which do not use X-ray technology are added to the list of authorised methods for passenger screening at EU airports. All other technologies, such as that used for mobiles phones and others, can be used provided that they comply with EU security standards.
Maybe in their 27-country manner, they let a French intern write the last sentence, but other than that, it’s pretty clear. The scientific community agrees that the risks are between small and tiny—but real: backscatter X-ray scanners use ionizing radiation that has been shown to damage DNA and cause cancer. From there, it’s just statistics. Put a number on this small risk and multiply it by the billions as people pass through these X-ray scanners over the years. The product will be the number of people who will get cancer from these scanners. That number will still be small. But it represents real people who will get real cancer.
In the US, however, the hullabaloo about ghostly gray-and-white pics of naked people floating around the internet monopolized the airtime, at the expense of health issues. In response, the TSA took measures to reduce the quality of the image and make it difficult for these images to leak into the Internet. The hullabaloo settled down. But the health concerns swirling around the backscatter X-ray scanners never got the full attention of the American public.
Which is unfortunate because there is an alternative technology: millimeter-wave scanners that use radio waves. Both will detect just about anything you have on you, from your secret stash of bourbon to a forgotten bottle cap. They do have limits, though: turbans, casts, prosthetics, etc. But one causes cancer, and the other doesn’t.
Backscatter X-ray scanners throw X-rays at the target and then record the rays that are reflected back (traditional X-rays go through the target and are recorded on the other side). Software converts the data into an image of a naked body.
Scientists disagree on how risky these scanners are, and they argue over the numbers. There is also the issue of how backscatter X-rays impact the body: the energy in these X-rays is concentrated on the skin and the tissue directly under it, rather than being absorbed by the entire body. Thus, concentrations are much higher on the surface of the body. The government says it's no big deal, that during a 42-minute walk outside, you're exposed to as much radiation. The doses are so minuscule, it says, that they pose no health hazard.
But... I lived in Manhattan on 9/11 (I was one of those who ran like heck to get away from the collapsing tower). A few days later, EPA Administrator Christine Whitman showed up next to a dour-faced Rudy Giuliani and declared that the EPA had analyzed the acrid toxic plume of smoke rising from Ground Zero, and that it posed no health threat. On September 18, the EPA issued a report that confirmed it. In it Whitman said, "The concentrations are such that they don't pose a health hazard.”
Alas, since 2003, we know that the White House had put pressure on the EPA to falsify the data and water down the report. Among the many things that became public was a memo in which Whitman required that all statements to the media be cleared by the National Security Council. Thousands of people, mostly first responders, have become severely ill, and some have died.
Okay, we can opt out. And I did that. It started a procedure of waiting, then the pat-down itself which took place in a booth, and then... The TSA officer told me to sit tight and wait. He walked out with the swab that he’d run over my laptop and luggage. I think he went to lunch. A while later, some other TSA officer stuck her head in and let me go. Total time elapsed for what should have been a two-minute pat-down: 48 minutes.
Perhaps it’s their way of teaching you a lesson. Better risk getting cancer. Which makes me wonder what powerful lobby is behind Rapiscan and other companies that make the backscatter X-ray scanners.
And how effective are any of these scanners at catching people who've forgotten to take out their nail clippers? Fairly effective. And at catching terrorists? Well, they haven't caught a single one yet.
Quibbles with the TSA? Well, its bigger step sister, the Postal Service, announced a staggering loss, and Congress will find a way to stick it to the taxpayer. But amazingly, if run right, it could be a decent business... Fixing The Postal Service Debacle.