TSA workers being fried by radiation


Over the past year and certainly over the last few months, fears about the effects of radiation on passengers passing through whole-body scanners have been splashed across newspaper headlines. The bottom line from researchers: Its OK — It would take something like 1,000 screenings per individual per year to exceed radiation standards.

We are safe! Radiation won’t kill us. But, what about all of those TSA screeners?

TSA in their blog clearly tells us not to worry. They’ve got our back.

The amount of radiation from backscatter screening is equivalent to two minutes of flight on an airplane, and the energy projected by millimeter wave technology is 10,000 times less than a cell phone transmission.

Back to the question. What about all of the TSA screeners?

We have all seen doctors, nurses and assistants crawl behind a lead shield when taking x-rays. At my last dental x-ray, the dental assistant put a lead apron over my personal parts. For CAT scans, the screeners leave the room.

TSA workers get zapped thousands of times a day. About one hundred thousand passengers or more pass through JFK, Atlanta, O’Hare, LAX, Dallas, LaGuardia, Newark and other airports. A TSA worker can get far more than 1,000 screening doses of radiation during a two-hour stint at the whole-body scanner. Several day of such duty, will certainly have repercussions.

With reassuring experts noting that 1,000 screenings per day would put TSA personnel in danger, we may have a problem.

TSA is comforting the traveling public, but treating their officers with disregard. This may be the best reason to support a TSA union so far.

I never thought I would write a line supporting a union, but with totally incompetent management that has no regard for their workers lives and the effects of radiation, a union begins to look like a good safeguard.

A union might slow down the untested and reckless deployment of whole-body scanners.

    1. The scanners don’t work for most explosives
    2. The scanners violate privacy and dignity
    3. The scanners are amazingly expensive and TSA, by their own admission and GAO reports, has not conducted a cost-benefit analyses of various technologies
    4. The scanners endanger the TSA workforce

I’m refusing to go through these whole-body scanners until the security apparatus forces me to. But, if I were a TSA screener, expected to stand beside these virtual strip search machines, I would protest loudly and refuse until TSA completely tests the machines or provides shielding.

  • Jeff L

    While the TSA should certainly test and confirm this, a manufacturer of such machines was one of my clients and they demonstrated that the output is so low that ambient radiation disperses to an undetectable level less than 4 inches from the front of the screening area in the backscatter style (which has less overall radioactive material in it than most machines currently in use in dental offices) and about 6 inches from the unit in the MW style (with the huge caveat that the unit is maintained properly). You receive multiple times more exposure if you stick your hand inside that degaussing cage at the end of the bag scanner than they will see in a day.

    In all honestly, the bag scanner operator is probably seeing more radiation exposure.

    That said, TSA screeners should still wear low-calibrated dosimeters when dealing with all 3 types of equipment and there should be a process to monitor continuous exposure levels.

  • http://www.tripso.com/author/leocha Charlie Leocha

    My concern is that TSA has not done appropriate testing in the field. Just as in the case of the GE puffer machines that were supposed to detect explosive traces, they have moved forward with deployment without testing. We wasted hundreds of millions on the puffer machines, now the stakes are higher with these whole-body scanners. Higher in loss of human dignity, higher in terms of potential radiation problems, higher in cost, higher in need for more manpower.

  • SirWired

    “A TSA worker can get far more than 1,000 screening doses of radiation during a two-hour stint at the whole-body scanner.”

    Have you ever actually seen one of these machines? It takes way more than 7.2 seconds per passenger, which is how fast they would need to move through to get 1,000 doses in an two hours.

    And do you have a link for that 1,000 number? I didn’t see one.


  • SirWired

    Also, the backscatter machines do not use X-Rays at all, they use millimeter-wave radar, which is an entirely different kind of radiation, and not wholly dissimilar from cell-phones, which is why that comparison was used to discuss the radiation level.

    And notice that the backscatter machines do not even penetrate the skin, making them far weaker than any medical scanning machine.

    Calculating the radiation dose is pretty straightforward physics. As the previous poster pointed out, the radiation can hardly be detected outside of the machine.

    These machines are indeed an expensive waste of taxpayer dollars, but I’m not sure getting a screener’s union to complain about hazards that can be easily demonstrated not to exist is going to be an effective means of getting the machines stopped.

  • Keith

    Sure, you can calculate the dose of radiation.

    That said, cell phones are STILL getting conflicting reports of safety. And any researcher can easily buy a few cell phones and test them. What’s to be said for these machines? A trivial calculation? If that was true, the cell phone debate would have been settled years ago.

    In general, tho, power is given, not taken. The problem is, there’s enough sheeple willing to give power to machines like these that those of us that find them undignifying are going to be shortly faced with the reality of not flying anymore.

  • SirWired

    Modern digital cell phones have a transmit power far smaller than the analog phones of yore. That’s why your battery on your tiny phone lasts a week or two instead of the two days for the small brick like it used to. They never found any conclusive health effects from the old phones; the likelihood of effects showing up with new digital models is far less. If the millimeter-wave machines are 1/10,000th of a cell phone call, even a theoretical danger is not present.

    The cell phone debate isn’t “settled” because there are a lot of credulous folk out there willing to listen to ambulance-chasing class-action attorneys instead of reasoned research.

    As far as the radiation from the backscatter machines goes… if we can’t even detect the stuff a half-foot away from the machine, the exposure by security staff is going to be beyond minimal. They’ll probably get about as much radiation from the sun coming in through the windows.

  • Scott

    So Charlie, you write from a perspective of protecting the public interest and you express yourself as clearly anti-Union? The whole point of Unions is protecting the rights of workers against whoever (employers, governments, etc.) might be attempt to infringe on those rights. Unions also work to raise the standard of living for both Union and non-Union workers alike. The major opponent of Union rights are Big Business, which are the people usually trying to oppress workers and take their rights away. Considering from your columns that you do not seem like a supporter of Big Business, you really seem to have bought into their anti-Union propaganda. That’s sad.

  • B.J.

    You want the public to believe SCANNERS are safe all that is needed

    is a sign stating that the Whole Body Scanner is deemed safe for

    PREGNANT WOMEN and the manufacturer assures fliers of their

    safety! My bet is that they will NEVER assume liability so why me??

  • Hapgood

    The scanners probably are safe for the public and the screeners– assuming they’re properly maintained, calibrated, and operated. And there’s the big problem. There have been news stories about hospitals failing to calibrate and operate (and perhaps maintain) radiation machines, resulting in overdoses to patients. And this is in hospitals, which presumably have procedures and properly-trained technicians, along with oversight and independent audits.

    Compare that with the TSA. The training of TSA personnel varies wildly between airports; they can’t even implement supposedly-simple rules about liquids and shoes with anything resembling consistency. They have no oversight or accountability at all, because that would be inconsistent with their “security” mission. And whenever they’ve had independent audits, the results have consistently shown ineptitude and ineffectiveness.

    So even if the scanners are safe when they come off the manufacturer’s assembly line, how can we have any confidence at all that they will be properly maintained, calibrated, and operated at TSA checkpoints?

    The TSA probably will do everything they can to evade that question, which is their strategy for dismissing any concerns about their competence or effectiveness. But if they do respond, the answer surely will be that “There’s no question that they’re safe.” And as patriotic citizens, we presumably have a duty to accept their assurances with unquestioning faith, just as we accept their assurances that the scanners provide effective protection and that they protect our privacy.

  • Keith


    Don’t worry. When people start growing a third eye or second head, they’ll check the calibration on the machines.


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  • JonJon
  • zone

    Would want to know who is calibrating these scanners, how often they
    are tested, and how knowledgeable those operating them are.
    A trained group of CT technologist’s in CA unwitting exposed many patients
    to high levels of radiation simply because of operator error.
    This error was only uncovered after patients exposed later were reporting
    ill effects such as hair loss.
    Just because a device is designed to be safe does not mean it is if
    misused or improperly calibrated.

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