Airport Security Scanners: Do They Put Your Health at Risk?

Photo credit: Bigstockphoto
Photo credit: Bigstockphoto

Is airport scanner radiation a threat to your health? Most people would prefer not to be hit with a dose of radiation before boarding a plane – both for the inconvenience and the fear of the potential health risks. But are you really getting significant radiation exposure when you pass through an airport security scanner?

Airport Scanner Radiation and Radiation Exposure

Airport security scanners expose you to two types of radiation technology – backscatter X-ray technology and millimeter-wave technology. Concern centers around backscatter x-ray technology since it exposes a traveler to small amounts of ionizing radiation, the type that causes cells damage by disrupting molecules and atoms in the body.
The amount of ionizing radiation exposure you’re exposed to when you’re scanned at an airport is very small. In fact, the amount you get is many times less than what you’ll be exposed too during the plane ride, according to researchers at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of California at San Francisco. But this does little to ease people’s concerns about these devices. Some are even opting for the traditional “pat-down” search to avoid the radiation exposure.

Are concerns about airport scanner radiation overplayed? At first glance, it would seem fears about this low level of radiation are unfounded – but the radiation from an airport scanner is focused on the skin – not on the body as a whole. When risk is calculated, it’s based on radiation being distributed uniformly over the body. The effects of a similar amount of radiation that’s focused and concentrated only on the skin and surrounding tissues may have very different health effects – including an increased risk of skin cancer.

The safety of airport security scanners is also dependent on adequate maintenance of the scanner units – and there’s the issue of human error. Recently, the Transportation Security Administration retested airport security scanners in some airports after they found reports of radiation exposure 10 times higher than what would be considered acceptable. This does little to soothe the frazzled nerves of travelers by air.

The reality is there are too many unanswered questions to assume airport scanner radiation isn’t a threat to health. Pregnant women and children are more susceptible to the effects of even low doses of ionizing radiation, and there are certain people with undiagnosed genetic defects who are more likely to accrue significant cell damage from airport scanner radiation exposure that could lead to cancer.

Then there are the frequent travelers. Even if the risk of radiation exposure from one airport security scanner is very low, what if a traveler has to be scanned every week just to board a plane? Exposure to ionizing radiation is cumulative over time and there is no safe level of exposure to radiation. Even the low levels you’re exposed to from the environment every day increases cancer risk, because the damage accumulates over time. Who needs more exposure to something that causes cancer?

Airport Scanner Radiation: The Bottom Line?

The radiation exposure from airport scanners may be low, assuming the machines are used correctly and maintained properly, but even low doses of radiation causes damage to the genetic material in cells. Your body has mechanisms to repair this damage, but the repair process may not be complete. Exposure to further low-dose ionizing radiation causes more damage that builds up over time and can eventually lead to cancer. Unfortunately, we already get radiation exposure from the environment and from our water supply. Is it really safe to get more? Some people think not.

USA Today. “TSA to Retest Airport Body Scanners for Radiation”
Nuclear Information and Resource Service. “All Levels of Radiation Cause Cancer” “Analysis Suggests Cancer Risk of Backscatter Airport Scanners is Low”

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