Over the Thanksgiving holiday, news reports were full of travel horror stories from airport security lines. Travelers were faced with a choice of two evils: a full-body pat-down, which some compared to sexual assault, or a trip through a scanner which reportedly allows the technician to essentially see what a person looks like naked.
Amongst all the hoopla and cries of “Don’t touch my junk!” an important question remains unanswered: just how safe are these scanners? Airline pilots, in particular, are concerned that if they repeatedly pass through these advanced scanners, they may be subjecting themselves to unacceptably high levels of radiation. At least two pilots’ unions, the U.S. Airline Pilots Association, and the Allied Pilots Association, have advised pilots not to undergo the more revealing scans.
The TSA is expected to have around 450-500 of the new, more revealing scanners in place by the end of the year. The scanners, from two different manufacturers, use different technologies to “see” under a person’s clothes. One kind (called a “backscatter” scanner) employs X-rays, while the other (a “millimeter wave” scanner) uses radio waves, which reportedly produces a more detailed image than backscatter technology.
Pilots and other frequent fliers are actually exposed to greater radiation levels while in the air than they are going through the scanners. At high altitudes, anyone on a plane is exposed to several thousand microrems of radiation in the form of cosmic rays — radiation from outside the Earth’s atmosphere. The short doses of X-ray or radio waves used in airport scanners, by contrast, are no more than 10 microrems. Then again, cosmic rays are of varying wavelength, encompassing the waves in the X-ray spectrum and other types as well, so it’s difficult to compare them to the more narrowly-focused waves emitted by a scanner.
Much like concerns over radiation from cell phones, while a demonstrable link would be conclusive, the lack of a demonstrable link isn’t conclusive — we just don’t know what the long-term effects of this new technology will be. Although there may be potential for injuries, the exact prolonged health risks are unknown; it would appear that the physical risk to most travelers from the new scanning technology is minor.