Airport Scanners: Radiation Is Not the Only Health-Hazard

There are about 350 full-body scanners being used in close to 70 U.S. airports, and that number is expected to increase to 1,000 scanners by the end of 2011.

Dubbed "naked" scanners because they give a graphic image of your body, including genitalia and other personal effects like sanitary napkins, the devices are raising privacy and health concerns among frequent travelers and pilot groups alike.

The alternative is also causing outrage. Those who opt out of being scanned must now submit to a far more intrusive form of pat-down, and a large number of horror stories have already surfaced, where people of all ages have been humiliated, or worse, during these pat-downs.

Are Full-Body Scanners an Invasion of Privacy?
Increasing numbers of people are expressing their outrage over being submitted to full-body scanning. Already the U.S. Travel Association has received hundreds of e-mails and phone calls from angry travelers who say they will stop flying until the scanners are no longer in force.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has also sought a court order to stop the use of the scanners, citing privacy and health risks and calling for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to conduct a public rule making to assess the safety and security issues.

Marc Rotenberg, president of EPIC, wrote on

The courts give the government a great deal of latitude in airports, but it is not unbounded, and the current screening procedures -- the digital X-ray cameras called "body scanners" and the genital-groping searches called "pat-downs" -- have never been reviewed by a court.

Is a court really prepared to say that in the absence of suspicion, these search procedures -- which the law would otherwise treat as sexual battery -- are "reasonable?" No other country in the world subjects its air travelers to the combination of screening procedures that Americans are being asked to endure.

Pilots' unions for U.S. Airways and American Airlines have also urged their pilots not to submit to Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) screening due to potential health risks and privacy issues.

Grassroots efforts are also underway, with one online group at the website likening the scanners to a strip search. reports:

We are opposed to the full-body backscatter X-ray airport scanners on grounds of health and privacy. We do not consent to strip searches, virtual or otherwise. We do not wish to be guinea pigs for new, and possibly dangerous, technology. We are not criminals. We are your customers. We will not beg the government anymore. We will simply stop flying until the scanners are history.

There are also concerns that the images from the scanners could be saved, an assertion the TSA denies. However, reports have already surfaced of workers saving such images and using them to humiliate colleagues.

You can opt out of the full-body scans at this time, but doing so means you will be subjected to an "enhanced physical pat-down" during which TSA agents use open hands and fingers to search your body physically. Previously, agents would use only the backs of their hands during pat-downs.

Some of the horror stories now emerging are causing a fury, and rightfully so. Is there no limit to how far TSA agents can go when frisking passengers?

Take the case of a female flight attendant who was forced to pull out her prosthetic breast, for example. Several other women have reported feeling shocked by what they call "sexual violations." TSA agents have even been accused of treating young children in such a way that they'd be brought up on child molestation charges had it not occurred in an airport.

There are stories of all sorts of inhumane treatment, such as the one from Tom Sawyer, a bladder cancer survivor whose urostomy bag was ruptured by an unconcerned TSA agent, leaving him covered in his own urine. In an interview with, Sawyer said:

"I am a good American and I want safety for all passengers as much as the next person. But if this country is going to sacrifice treating people like human beings in the name of safety, then we have already lost the war."

According to Jeffrey Goldberg, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, these enhanced tactics are purposely designed and intended to be intimidating and humiliating, in order to stop you from opting out of the scanner!

Need to Fly?
Making matters even worse, not to mention bizarre, once you're at the security check, there's no turning back; you have no choice but to submit to either, or both, of the new and enhanced security techniques, according to the TSA.

The TSA is warning that any would-be commercial airline passenger who enters an airport checkpoint and then refuses to undergo the method of inspection designated by TSA will not be allowed to fly and also will not be permitted to simply leave the airport, the Sun Sentinel reports. That person will have to remain on the premises to be questioned by the TSA and possibly by local law enforcement. Anyone refusing faces fines up to $11,000 and possible arrest.

Airports Can Opt Out of TSA Screenings
It's a little known fact that airports are not required to use TSA screenings at all. They can opt out of such programs altogether -- including the body scanners and "enhanced pat-downs" -- and hire private screening agencies instead.

As Byron York, chief political correspondent with the Washington Examiner, recently wrote:

... With the TSA engulfed in controversy and hated by millions of weary and sometimes humiliated travelers, Rep. John Mica, the Republican who will soon be chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, is reminding airports that they have a choice.

Mica, one of the authors of the original TSA bill, has recently written to the heads of more than 150 airports nationwide suggesting they opt out of TSA screening.

When the TSA was established, it was never envisioned that it would become a huge, unwieldy bureaucracy which was soon to grow to 67,000 employees, Mica writes. As TSA has grown larger, more impersonal, and administratively top-heavy, I believe it is important that airports across the country consider utilizing the opt-out provision provided by law.

Many airports choose not to hire private screeners out of liability concerns if a terrorist managed to get through, and there's no way to know right now whether such changes would make airport screening any safer or less intrusive. Still, it's an option that many do not realize exist.

Some airports in Florida may ditch TSA. According to Larry Dale, president of the Sanford Airport Authority in Orlando, says the change to a private screening company was approved on Oct. 5, CNN reports.

However, security contractors must still follow TSA security guidelines. According to TSA spokesman Greg Soule:

"All commercial airports are regulated by TSA whether the actual screening is performed by the TSA officers or private companies. The TSA sets the security standards that must be followed and includes the use of enhanced pat downs and imaging technology, if installed at the airport."

Private contractors may, however, be more careful about the professionalism and courtesy of their employees, compared to TSA. According to Larry Dale, "research shows that using a private security screening company would be more efficient and more enjoyable to the public."

Airport Scanners May Cause Cancer
The other glaring issue posed by the TSA scanners has to do with your health and their use of controversial backscatter technology, which projects an X-ray beam onto your body.

As stated:

Backscatter X-ray uses ionizing radiation, a known cumulative health hazard, to produce images of passengers' bodies. Children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those with defective DNA repair mechanisms are considered to be especially susceptible to the type of DNA damage caused by ionizing radiation. Also at high risk are those who have had, or currently have, skin cancer.

Ionizing radiation's effects are cumulative, meaning that each time you are exposed you are adding to your risk of developing cancer. Since the dosage of radiation from the backscatter X-ray machines is absorbed almost entirely by the skin and tissue directly under the skin, averaging the dose over the whole body gives an inaccurate picture of the actual harm.

Scientists from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) sent a letter to the White House Office of Science and Technology echoing the concern that radiation from the scanners could damage skin and underlying tissue, potentially leading to skin cancer.

The White House Office responded that the technology had been tested extensively for safety, but the scientists noted numerous flaws in the response and are currently preparing a rebuttal.

Because the radiation beam from the scanners concentrates on your skin, researchers believe the dose may be up to 20 times higher than is being estimated.

As Mail Online reported, Dr. David Brenner, head of Columbia University's center for radiological research, also noted that about one in 20 people, including children and people with gene mutations, may be at increased risk as they are less able to repair the DNA damage caused by the X-ray scan.

According to Brenner in an NPR interview, the danger to most individual travelers is minuscule -- but he worries what could happen when those small risks are multiplied among the 700 million people that fly each year.

"Recent research," Brenner says, "indicates that about five percent of the population -- one person in 20 -- is especially sensitive to radiation. These people have gene mutations that make them less able to repair X-ray damage to their DNA. Two examples are the BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 mutations associated with breast and ovarian cancer, but scientists believe many more such defects are unknown. I don't know if I'm one of those five percent. I don't know if you're one of those five percent," Brenner says, "and we don't really have a quick and easy test to find those individuals."

Even the U.S. Airline Pilots Association (USAPA) recognized the potential risks, especially from frequent exposure. As CNN reported, Capt. Mike Cleary, president of the USAPA wrote:

"Based on currently available medical information, USAPA has determined that frequent exposure to TSA-operated scanner devices may subject pilots to significant health risks."

Some of the TSA's full-body scanners subject your body to small doses of ionizing radiation.
Ionizing radiation creates charged ions by displacing electrons in atoms, even without heat. Examples are radiation emitted from radioactive substances in rocks and soil, cosmic rays of the sun, and radiation from man-made technology such as X-ray machines, power stations and nuclear reactors.

A host of epidemiological studies have strongly suggested that X-rays and other ionizing radiation are a cause of many types of human cancer. X-rays may even be responsible for most of the deaths from cancer and ischemic heart disease, according to John Gofman, M.D., Ph.D., a professor at U.C. Berkeley and one of the leading experts in the world.

Ionizing radiation is a uniquely potent mutagen due to its ability to wreak havoc upon your cells and their genetic code.

Your cells are unable to repair the very complex genetic damage done by X-rays. Some of the mutated cells die, but others do not, and the cells that go on living have a proliferative advantage -- giving rise to the most aggressive cancers.

Unlike some other mutagens, X-rays have access to the genetic molecules of every one of your internal organs, if the organ is within range of the X-ray beam. Even a single high-speed, high-energy electron, set into motion by an X-ray photon, can bounce around and cause you irreparable damage. In my opinion there doesn't seem to be a safe dose of X-rays.

Further, the effects of radiation are cumulative, which means that every time you walk through an airport scanner, you're adding to your dose. If you fly frequently or you're exposed to other forms of radiation through CT scans, mammograms and other medical procedures, you could easily be on radiation overload.

Fears of Radiation Exposure May Be Overblown
It is, however, important to place this radiation exposure risk in proper perspective. Let's look at the reported numbers.

Screening at an airport X-ray scanner produces .02 microsieverts of radiation. But remember, you are only getting them because you are going on a flight. Nearly everyone forgets that when you fly, there is also ionizing radiation exposure. In fact, on a typical transcontinental flight at 30,000 feet you will be exposed to 20 microsieverts of radiation. That is 1,000 times the dose you receive from the scanner.

Interestingly, a different group of scientists at UCSF has issued their own opinions, which support the use of the scanners, and debunk their colleagues' concerns. The previous group's warnings were "just plain wrong," radiation specialist Professor Ronald Arenson told SF Weekly.

The "well-intended" scientists who wrote the letter -- senior faculty at UCSF -- "don't understand how radiation translates to an actual dose in the human body," Arenson said.

Ronald Gould, a physicist in the UCSF radiology department and member of the Radiation Safety Committee in the university's Office of Research, agreed, saying the letter criticizing the TSA scanners was written by people "totally unrelated to radiation."

The amount of background radiation a person is exposed to in a normal day is the equivalent of 85 screenings in a TSA scanner," Gould said.

Another scientist, Professor Fergus Coakley, chief of the abdominal imaging section at the UCSF radiology department agreed. "Being worried about the scan on the way to the plane ride where you're getting extra radiation is bogus," he said.

So if you are willing to accept the risk of air travel radiation how could you possibly justify concern about these scanners?

However, having said that, this past year I became aware that the way to reduce your air travel radiation by 99 percent is to fly at night. Just as it is impossible to get a suntan at night, you will avoid virtually all of the radiation when you fly at night. That is why I nearly fly exclusively at night now, or as far away from noon as practically possible. I also take 2 mg of astaxanthin every day, which is believed to radically limit damage from ionizing radiation.

But please understand, the real health danger is from CT scans, which is 50,000 times the radiation dose of one of these scans. You would have to have one scan every day for 136 years to equal the radiation of one CT scan.

The issue of whether or not the alternative -- being groped and potentially humiliated during an 'enhanced' pat-down -- is warranted, or even legal, is another issue altogether ...

Analysis Only Works If We Aren't Being Lied to
Please understand that this calculation and risk proposal is based on the reported radiation levels. If we are being lied to then all bets are off and we need to reanalyze, but if the numbers are accurate you would have to have to have 1,000 scans to equal the radiation exposure of one daytime flight.

But Radiation Is NOT the Only Health Hazard of Full-Body Scanners
That said, "the radiation dose is likely the least of the problems with airport screening," according to Dr. Jane M. Orient, M.D. In her article for the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS), she details what the medical community considers to be the real health hazard of full-body scanners, namely the use of low-energy backscatter technology.

Dr. Orient explains:

They use an ingenious low-energy backscatter technique, which is apparently wonderful for identifying explosives in cargo. Since the radiation doesn't penetrate far, it wouldn't affect an unborn baby. But it does concentrate the dose in the skin.

Some scientists warn that this effect has not been properly studied, and one nuclear medicine expert told me that he is going to opt out of the scan. I think this much is clear: if you had a deadly disease, and the scanner were an FDA-regulated device that might save your life, your doctor wouldn't be allowed to use it, because of inadequate study.

Likewise, two scientists who recently spoke with CNN point out the potential for backscatter technology to cause fatal skin cancer. CNN reports:

The risk of harmful radiation exposure from backscatter scans is very small, according to David Brenner, director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University and a professor of radiation biophysics.

But he said he is concerned about how widely the scanners will be used.

If you think of the entire population of, shall we say, a billion people per year going through these scanners, it's very likely that some number of those will develop cancer from the radiation from these scanners, Brenner said.

Skin cancer would likely be the primary concern, he said. Each time the same person receives a backscatter scan, the small risk associated with the low dose of radiation is multiplied by the number of exposures.

The TSA says each backscatter scan emits radiation equivalent to just two minutes of cosmic radiation at altitude.

Peter Rez, a professor of physics at Arizona State University, disagrees. Rez has independently calculated the radiation doses of backscatter scanners using the images produced by the machines.

I came to the conclusion that although low, the dose was higher than they said, he said.
Based on his analysis, Rez estimates each scan produces radiation equivalent to 10 to 20 minutes of flight. ... The probability of dying from radiation from a body scanner and that of being killed in a terror attack are roughly the same, he said. About one in 30 million.

They're both incredibly unlikely events. These are still a factor of 10 lower than the probability of dying in any one year from being struck by lightning in the United States.

What Can You Do if You're Planning to Fly?
As for the level of health-hazard, I sincerely believe the most significant risk you have when flying is due to ionizing radiation, but NOT from these scanners; it is from actually flying at 35,000 feet. We were never meant to be living this high above the ground. So what can you do?

As I mentioned, the simplest solution is to fly at night or at least avoid flying from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., with noon being the worst. If you fly at night you can reduce your radiation risk by 99 percent because nearly all of the radiation from the sun is being blocked by the earth.

If you are unable to fly at night for whatever reason the next best solution I have found is to use the most potent lipid-soluble free radical antioxidant I know of, which has been shown to virtually eliminate the risk of cataracts and age-related macular degeneration. It also helps prevent sunburn.

And just what antioxidant would that be?
It is astaxanthin, which is carotenoid extracted from a marine algae. The typical dose is two mg, but the key is that it needs to be taken for about three weeks before your radiation exposure.

This is not only helpful for exposure to high-altitude radiation, but any radiation from the airport scanner or even CT scans, which are 10,000 times stronger.

If you opt for the pat-down, keep hygiene in mind.

Dr. Orient also brought this issue up in her AAPS article:

"... what about the transmission of scabies, crab lice, bedbug larvae, and all manner of germs by TSA gropers? Do they change gloves and wash their hands between subjects, as hospital personnel must do?"

According to eye-witnesses, TSA agents do not routinely change gloves between each passenger. So, the obvious remedy would be to insist the agent puts on a fresh pair of gloves before touching you and your child.


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Dr. Joseph Mercola is the founder and director of Become a fan of Dr. Mercola on Facebook, follow him on Twitter, and check out Dr. Mercola's report on sun exposure!