Are TSA Scanners More Than Embarrassing?

As you may have heard recently, flying hasn’t been this exciting since the Wright brothers took off from Kitty Hawk.

That’s because now just getting through recently imposed security procedures requires considerable bravado. The new X-ray based devices give Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employees delightfully detailed pictures of your every physical nuance.

But what are the health risks of these new body scanners? Are they dangerous?

Peep Showphoto © 2008 Steve Jurvetson | more info (via: Wylio)

Interestingly enough, it is much easier to find a platitude than an actual value of radiation exposure for these scanners. Every official source having anything to do with the devices says that you get more radiation in an airplane flight at 30,000 feet in two minutes than in a backscatter scanner. But what in the world does that even mean?

As you probably suspected, radiation is bad for you. This is a rather recent discovery in medicine, dating back only 100 years. For those who still had doubts about radiation’s badness, 1945’s atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought that point home.

The trouble with radiation, in any dose, is it can cause damage to DNA, which is pretty important stuff, maybe the most important stuff in the known universe. It’s literally the blueprint for your entire being. Damaged DNA can be non-viable or can even be the start of cancer.

The dose of radiation for a backscatter scanner has been measured between 0.005 and 0.009 milli-rem (mrem). This needs to be put in context. Background radiation is all around us, fortunately in low doses. We breathe low levels of Radon gas and spend time in the sun – both are radiation sources. For comparison, a chest X-ray is about 6 mrem, and a year of normal sunshine exposure adds up to a cumulative total of 60 mrem.

So the dose of radiation from backscatter scan is actually quite low. This scan adds some immeasurably tiny risk of cancer. The concern seems to be more a perception of risk, rather than actual risk. The average patient will happily undergo a chest X-ray, roughly 1,000 times the radiation of a scanner, when he has high fever, cough and can’t breathe. The difference between radiation from a chest X-ray and a scanner is perhaps the medical radiation dose gets you a good diagnosis and effective treatment. The scanner gets you nothing personally, unless you count not getting blown up.

Little doubt, the whole new security process will be re-thought, re-engineered and hopefully improved as more and more people voice their displeasure.

I can’t help thinking that a completely incompetent would-be terrorist, who couldn’t even blow up his underwear bomb, has altered the course of history.

Take care,

Dr. B


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