Frequent fliers, what do you do when faced with the backscatter scans at airport security? The Transportation Security Administration — you know, the TSA — says they’re perfectly safe. I’m not a conspiracy junkie, I (mostly) trust our government, but I’m a frequent flier and I opt out of the full body backscatter x-ray scans. I get the pat down instead.
I’ve had the “regular” pat down a bunch of times before: I fly pretty often and my home base airport LAX uses those backscatter full body radiation dosers with which I’m not completely comfortable. Each time I’ve been patted down, it’s been a female TSA agent, using the back of her hands, describing to me what she’s about to do with every movement. All have been professional, I haven’t been obscenely groped (just…touched), and it takes a couple minutes at the most. The backscatter x-ray would be faster of course, and less embarrassing for easily-embarrassed people, but 1. apparently I’m not easily embarrassed and 2. passing through the backscatter scanners more than a few times a year would incrementally add to the radiation load my body gets. Backscatter scans use ionizing radiation, a known cumulative health hazard. So, there it is, people I travel with are already used to having to wait a beat for me after they’ve already retrieved their possessions and put their shoes back on.
Last year the board certified neurosurgeon Dr Russell Blaylock wrote that the radiation from backscatter scans at airports is absorbed by and concentrated in the skin — so that whole-body radiation exposure tests don’t give a clear picture of what’s going on. He described how a group of experts in radiation biology and biophysics wrote a highly concerned letter to President Obama’s science and technology advisor, expressing their worry about “dangerously high dose(s) of radiation to the skin.” Backscatter scans used at airports aren’t exactly comparable to chest x-rays because the test of radiation exposure is based on whole-body exposure: this is appropriate for chest x-rays, but not backscatter ones as the latter’s radiation is completely soaked up by the skin’s few millimeters and contained therein.
Now, some people get upset because they see the TSA pat downs as a violation of their privacy. Jesse Ventura, the former governor of Minnesota, claims it’s unconstitutional, and that it legally meets the definition for an unlawful sexual assault. Others counter that they can just go through the backscatter scans and avoid the whole business of being touched altogether. That’s an oversimplified answer to a complicated question related to airport security. But doctors recommend that skin cancer patients and survivors avoid the backscatter x-rays, as well as patients and survivors of other kinds of cancer. Clearly, some people are more more at risk. The US Airline Pilots Association requested that the TSA exempt pilots from the scans because of their concerns about the frequent radiation exposure.
For average healthy people, going through a backscatter scan at an airport once or twice a year only adds a negligible amount of radiation exposure to their bodies. But when does that line get crossed? When someone flies 10 times a year? 20?
I don’t know the answer. And different medical experts have different opinions about it, too. The cumulative effects of radiation are known in terms of sun exposure, and it’s accepted that large doses of radiation are very unhealthy. The backscatter scans, again, are not large doses, but they’re not nothing, either. The choice is in the hands of the frequent flier: Dose your body, or get it groped. For now, at least, I choose the latter.