The Backlash against BackscatterJuly 31, 2012
The airport x-ray machines are not safe. And for over a year, TSA has been defying a court order.
A few months ago we told you about the dangers of airport full-body scanners—that they emit low levels of ionizing radiation and can cause cancer. The x-rays skim the entire surface of your skin instead of being directed to a localized area of your body, which means that radiation levels could be 10 to 20 times higher than the manufacturer’s calculations. The cancer threat has the European Union so concerned that it has put a moratorium on the machines.
Some doctors opt out of the backscatter scan and instead go for a full-body pat-down, intrusive as it is (more on that later). Among them is Dr. Dong Kim, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ neurosurgeon and chair of the department of neurosurgery at the University of Texas Medical School. “There is really no absolutely safe dose of radiation,” he says. “Each exposure is additive, and there is no need to incur any extra radiation when there is an alternative.” Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, never goes through a scanner when he travels because he’s concerned about whether the machines are calibrated and inspected properly.
That’s a valid concern, since a report released this year from the Department of Homeland Security found inconsistencies in how the machines are calibrated to ensure radiation safety and image quality, and says that not all TSA screeners have completed required radiation safety training. Inspectors found that the TSA made more than 3,500 maintenance calls in the first year the scanners were deployed, meaning that, on average, each machine needed service more than once a month. Millions of people go through these machines—and ProPublica reports that up to 100 US passengers could get cancer from them every year.
There has been a public backlash against the backscatter machines—from citizens, from advocacy groups like ours, and from integrative health groups. ProPublica, Dr. Joseph A. Mercola, and Natural News have all run series of articles on the dangerous x-ray scanners.
Two years ago, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) filed a petition with the DC appeals court to suspend the TSA’s full-body scanner program, arguing that the Department of Homeland Security had violated the Administrative Procedures Act by implementing body scanners without inviting public comment, as well as the Privacy Act and the Fourth Amendment.
Last year the court ordered the agency to “promptly” undertake a formal rulemaking process and open up a public “notice and comment” period to discuss and justify the need for these scanners. A year later, Homeland Security has still not done so, thumbing its nose at the court order! So this month EPIC and other organizations filed another lawsuit to end the delay.
Moreover, two different congressional committees have now determined that not only are the machines extremely expensive, they’re also ineffective! In May, members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Oversight and Government Reform Committee sharply criticized the TSA (the Transportation Security Administration) for spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a technology that they said had not been properly tested and is ineffective. And John L. Mica, chair of the House Transportation Committee, found that the machines’ ability to detect actual threats was so disappointing that he asked that no more be commissioned.
Both TSA’s own procurement specifications and a subsequent report by the Government Accountability Office indicate that the machines were never designed to detect powdered explosives. This is particularly ironic since the machines’ use was initially justified after the underwear bomber incident—and he used powdered explosives!
In January, senators on the the Homeland Security Committee introduced a bill that would require the TSA to post signs about the radiation exposure at the security checkpoints, and to hire an independent laboratory for a health study of the machines. A companion bill in the House was filed in February.
We would say they have this backwards—the health studies should have to be conducted before the machines are installed! The government is pushing this technology without conducting adequate safety testing, without properly evaluating its effectiveness, and without an open and transparent public review process.
Dr. David J Brenner, director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University Medical Center, notes the complete lack of independent and clinical data on the machines. The studies that are cited come largely from either the government or the scanner’s manufacturer, and as we noted last November, TSA has also reneged on earlier promises it made to conduct an independent study.
So why not just opt out of the backscatter screening, the way the doctors do? First, it routinely takes an extra two minutes per person, assuming nothing unusual is found during the pat-down. Let’s say the average plane has 200 passengers. If even half of them were to opt-out of screening, it would take over three hours and twenty minutes just to get through the screening line.
Opting out also means subjecting yourself to an invasive pat-down procedure that appears designed to embarrass the traveler. There have been many pat-down incidents that are, quite frankly, outrageous, such as the bladder cancer survivor whose pat-down left him humiliated and urine-soaked when a TSA agent broke the seal on his urostomy bag. Or the breast cancer survivor who was forced to remove her prosthetic breast from her blouse and show it to a TSA agent. Or the three-year-old who was patted town, screaming hysterically, because she didn’t want her teddy bear to go through the scanner.
An ANH-USA staff member reports that it appeared TSA deliberately tried to detain her on a recent trip. First she was subjected to an invasive pat-down, and when they didn’t find anything of concern, they rubbed a cotton swab on their gloves and put it into a machine to see if it picked up any explosive device–related powders. It set off the alarm and three TSA agents came and took her into a back room for a more thorough screening, as if she were a terrorist.
Needless to say, no explosives were found!