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Backscatter X-ray Scans at Airport Security

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.

Airport security (Piotrus via wikicommoms)

This is not a backscatter scan. I tried to take a photo of one at LAX and was reprimanded.

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.

LAX Terminal 4 interior (RobAn via wikicommons)

Los Angeles International Airport uses backscatter x-ray scans.

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.

Los Angeles Airport Sign (Florencio Briones via wikicommons)

LAX. Come for the So Cal fun, stay for the radiation dose.

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.

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10 Responses to “Backscatter X-ray Scans at Airport Security”

  1. 1

    Great Post! It really puts things in perspective for us as we travel a lot! Didn’t even know we had a choice.. for now on we’ll will choose the latter too… thanks to your post!

    Nancy & Shawn

  2. 2
    Donna Hull says:

    What happens to your stuff while they are patting you down? If you travel with a laptop, camera or other equipment, do you worry about someone stealing it?

    • 2.1

      They are supposed to bring it within your eyesite at all times. So don’t go anywhere until your stuff has been gathered up – they are never to separate you from your personal items because YOU, not they, are responsible for anything that happens to your personal items. Usually they are very good about asking which items are yours, gathering them up and bringing them where you can see them but occasionally you have to ask.

  3. 3
    Dave says:

    Nice post, Jen. It’s unfortunate the LAX goons wouldn’t let you snap a photo of the backscatter. Next time, just sneak one in on the camera phone…but be sly about it. Or maybe you need to get the sunglasses with the built in camera. If they ask you to remove your shades, tell them you have really sensitive eyes. That way, you capture the whole process. Keep up the good work!

  4. 4
    Jody says:

    Ugh, the scanner. We don’t have one at my home airport yet (thank goodness) so I’ve only been through one coming home from Nashville.

    I did have to make a decision about a trip to Dallas we have coming up. While we found cheap flights, I am really hesitant on having my girls go through the scanner- and even more disturbed by the thought of anyone patting them down. For me, I don’t care. For my girls- that’s a “bad touch”, period. So we’re driving.

    Anymore it seems like we road trip if the drive is under 15 hours- flying just isn’t worth the hassle.

  5. 5
    John says:

    Well written post, but where were all the posts suggesting that it is better to keep flying to a minimum to reduce your radiation exposure? Your radiation exposure doubles for every 6000 feet of altitude gained.

  6. 6

    I regularly opt out of the x-ray scanners, most recently yesterday in the Omaha airport. I don’t trust the TSA’s ability to handle the machines, not do I believe that their privacy policy is foolproof. I’ve noticed that many airports are using them less and less, or quietly allowing passengers to choose the metal detector lines instead. I fly quite a bit and I’ve only had to opt out twice.

    Donna, you can request to be facing your stuff while the pat down is being done so you can make sure nothing happens to it.

  7. 7
    Lauren at Northwest TripFinder says:

    It’s been a looooong time since I’ve flown. Because the last time I did, these scanners weren’t out there yet. But when I DO, I’ll take the pat-down and will certainly opt my child into the pat-down over the scanner..

  8. 8
    Michelle says:

    To be honest, I’m not comfortable with either option, but I get enough radiation from all of the x-rays I get with my illness. Last thing I need is more when I travel. I opt-out, too.

  9. 9

    As a researcher one of the most important considerations is to look at where the information comes from that you are using for your decision. Dr. Blaylock is not a radiologist. Just because you have went to medical school does not mean that you are an expert in every area. There is way to much information to become that acquainted with and know to the extent of every aspect. This is way there are specialist in areas, and not just in medicine. I would encourage those that have a concern to look at http://www.physics.isu.edu/radinf/body.htm as this is a very simple reading to the layperson. As I am sure Dr. Blaylock is a great neurosurgeon you have to weight his opinion accordingly. When looking at the studies that have been done on backscatter technology, Dr. Blaylock’s opinion is one an increasingly minority side of the spectrum.

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