TSA full body scanners

Last week unions representing US Airways and American Airlines pilots began to urge their members to “opt-out” of full-body scanning at airport security checkpoints. They cited health risks and privacy concerns.

I applaud Captain Cleary and both the US Airways and American Airlines pilots for “calling out” TSA on the scanner issue. I think they are right, but believe they haven’t recognized the larger picture.

It’s true there are more safety questions about these full body scanners than answers.

The effects of x-ray exposure are cumulative. With such a low dose, backscatter x-ray seems safe for most occasional travelers, but I think the jury is still out for frequent fliers, especially ones who have had significant x-ray or other nuclear radiation diagnostic or treatment procedures for medical purposes.

What’s more, Dr. John Sedat, Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of California in San Francisco, said that a government statement supporting full-body x-ray safety had “many misconceptions.” Dr. Sedat warned that radiation from the devices has been dangerously underestimated and could lead to an increased risk of skin cancer.

According to TSA, millimeter wave (MMW) scanners, the other type of scanner, along with backscatter x-ray scanners, which comprise TSA’s scanner arsenal, are safe. The problem is, not only don’t we know if they are safe for humans, we don’t know if they are safe for medical implants, despite TSA’s protests.

In fact, there is some evidence that it’s possible for the terahertz radiation emanating from MMW scanners to damage human DNA. In January, I wrote about a study by Boian S. Alexandrov (and colleagues) at the Center for Nonlinear Studies at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. It showed terahertz waves could “…unzip double-stranded DNA, creating bubbles in the double strand that could significantly interfere with processes such as gene expression and DNA replication.” That’s serious if accurate.

We don’t know if the MMW scanners are safe because, to date, there has been no long-term third party safety testing of these scanners or their terahertz radiation. There have been no clinical trials for multiple exposures to terahertz waves, accumulated over a long period of time. In fact, the FDA, has never granted approval for any such devices even though they clearly qualify as “medical devices.”

I have the same safety concerns which Captain Cleary has, but these safety concerns are not the most important problem of these full body scanners.

Ben Wallace, Conservative Member of Parliament in the UK, showed he understands the problem. Last year, he sharply criticized Prime Minister Gordon Brown, for British security’s over-reliance on scanning technology for airport security. He also took time to point out that x-ray backscatter scanners would be no more likely to detect the Christmas Day bomb than a millimeter-wave radio scanner would have been.

TSA has told us repeatedly that their full body scanners don’t penetrate the skin. They penetrate our clothing, so TSA can see what we’re hiding beneath our clothing, if anything.

Either scanner can detect items such as metallic and nonmetallic weapons (guns, knives, box cutters, and even the Glock advanced synthetic polymer pistol) and dense explosives, some of which can’t be found through the use of metal detectors.

The problem is these scanners can’t find items which have a low density, such as powder, many liquids or thin plastics. They can’t detect any object having the same or lower density than clothing.

They can’t detect explosives in the form of a fine powder like that used in the attempted bombing of Flight 253. Neither the backscatter x-ray or MMW scanner could have detected the “Panty Bomber’s” explosive in the airport.

They can detect the classic plastic explosive, C4, in a densely molded form hidden under a passenger’s clothing.

They can’t detect a stick of C4 hidden in a body cavity, an illegal drug concealment method with a long history of use in the US.

Full body scanners, costing up to $200K installed, are less able to detect explosives than an explosives sniffing dog, and no better than well trained security agents using a standard pat-down at finding weapons.

Yesterday, you might have heard me speaking about this problem with travel expert, Arthur Frommer, on his weekly radio program, “The Travel Show.” We discussed the full body scanner privacy, safety, and efficiency issues I’ve been writing about in my Consumer Traveler column for almost a year.

We also discussed what I view as the “bottom line” for these scanners. They just don’t make us safer!

In fact, by relying on these scanners, TSA is making us less safe. When you go through a full body scanner you don’t get a standard pat-down, the kind which could detect another “Panty Bomber” trying to bring down a plane. TSA plans to generally depend on the scanners to detect any weapon or explosive a terrorist might bring on a plane, even though they aren’t capable of accomplishing that task.

We need TSA to adopt reasonable and intelligent procedures and methods which will actually make us safer. Getting rid of these scanners, and cancelling future orders, while employing explosive sniffing dogs would go a long way in improving air transportation passenger safety.