© 2011 Roy Benaroch, MD
Toral asked, “With all the talks going on about TSA’s new full body scanning, my main concern is if it is safe for my toddler? I read the article on CNN (http://www.cnn.com/2010/TRAVEL/11/12/body.scanning.radiation/index.html) and it left me even more confused. Should I choose pat downs or body scan?”
It can be difficult to separate the hype from the facts. Many people are getting the impression that our choice is between a thorough personal groping and cancer. Is the risk really worth this much worry?
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There are two kinds of scanning devices that are being installed at airports as part of the TSA’s security plans:
“Millimeter-wave scanners” use a kind of microwave radiation, similar to what’s used in police radar guns. This kind of radiation isn’t thought by most scientists to even conceivably cause health problems—so the risk here is really only to your privacy, if you’re the rare prude who doesn’t want strangers looking at nekkid photos of you and your children.
The real (albeit small) danger is from “backscatter scanners”, which use genuine x-rays to penetrate your clothes and take lurid photos of what you’ve got underneath. The amount of x-ray radiation is quite small, but it’s not zero. Statistically, the chance of an individual developing cancer after one of these scans is really very, very low. But the risk is surely more for children (who have many more years of life than grandma, though they’re apparently considered equally likely to blow up a plane). The risk would of course be even greater for frequent travelers or airline workers who undergo repeated scans.
Media reports often stress that the government considers these scans safe, but others disagree, often pointing out that government and industry estimates of radiation exposure may not be reliable, and may dramatically underestimate risk in the event of a possible malfunction.
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Personally, what bothers me the most isn’t the health risk, or even the loss of privacy. For my children, what’s been damaged the most is a sense of safety and trust. The vast majority of airport travelers are trustworthy, loving people with families of their own who just want to get where they’re going. The bad guys will figure out a new way past these machines, and the TSA will shortly come up with some new expensive other way to scan, analyze, and scrutinize the millions of us who don’t have plans to blow up a plane. And we’ll teach our kids that we just can’t trust each other anymore.