Should You Be Afraid of the Body Scanner Raising the Risk of Cancer? Nah, and Neither Should Pilots

If you’ve been watching pilot unions tell their members to decline to go through the body scanner when they go through security, you’re probably feeling concerned about your safety as well, right? The good news is that there don’t appear to be any real safety implications for the casual traveler and it’s unlikely to be problematic for pilots either. My guess is that this is more of a backlash against the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) rules than anything else. While there are plenty of privacy and annoyance factors to consider, it seems like safety isn’t a major concern.

Pilots Fight TSA AIT Rules

Much of this has to stem from recent TSA moves. Now, if you are at a checkpoint where there is a backscatter, full body scanner and you are asked to go through it, you have the right to say no. If you say no, however, then you will be subject to a full body massage. The TSA has recently changed the pat-down procedure so that the front of the hand will be used instead of the back and the hands may wander closer to, uh, sensitive areas. In other words, go ahead and turn down the body scan but you’ll then be groped. It’s not a great option.

Pilot unions have now come out saying that their members should avoid body scanners, or what is now being referred to as Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT), due to concerns about radiation. This is an x-ray machine, after all. Captain Dave Bates, president of Allied Pilots Association which represents American’s pilots, says in a letter that pilots should decline the AIT and instead opt for a pat-down. He then says it’s unprofessional to receive a pat-down in public in uniform so pilots should ask for a private screening. If that means that the pilot is unable to be ready to fly on time, then that’s ok. Safety first.

Now Mike Cleary, head of the US Airline Pilots Association at US Airways, has taken it even further. He says that crewmembers should have a witness with them during the pat-down process. After that, pilots need to “evaluate their fitness for duty. As has been determined, there is a wide range of possibilities once you submit to a private screening, and the results can be devastating.”

This is obviously turning into a huge issue, but why? The pilots say that the issue is due to radiation exposure, but much of this seems to be primarily an objection to pilots being subjected to screening at all. The pilots have long argued, and rightly-so in my opinion, that screening on-duty pilots is ridiculous. After all, they are the ones with the locked cockpit door behind them. If they want to do damage, they don’t need to smuggle something on the plane to do it. They control the plane. There are issues with ensuring that someone is actually a pilot and that they are on-duty, but those are solvable. Flying pilots shouldn’t need to be screened, so now the unions are, in my opinion, putting out these directives in order to try to bring some urgency to the issue.

But should you be concerned about your own safety here from radiation? I don’t think so. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has put out a lengthy letter to the University of California regarding concerns stated by Dr John Holdren about the potentially harmful effects of these machines. I’ve read through the letter and I’d say I understand half of it at best. So maybe smarter people than I can help translate, but I get the main points of it. As Kai Ryssdal says, let’s do the numbers.

The established standard for radiation exposure for the general public from man-made, non-medical sources is 1,000 µSv (microsieverts) per year. One microsievert is one millionth of a sievert, and if you’re familiar with the now-outdated measure of rem, a sievert is 1/100 of a rem, so these are tiny little numbers.

Since it’s not possible to control all sources of radiation exposure, the general rule is to try to keep it under 250 µSv per year from sources that can be controlled. For a radiation-emitting machine to be considered “general use,” as the backscatter machines are required to be by TSA, it has to emit 1,000 times less than the 250 µSv limit for each use, or 0.25 µSv. The backscatter machines have passed that in every test. In fact, it appears that the machines actually emit 0.05 µSv per use. That means that a person could go through the machine 13 times a day for every day of the year and still not have exceeded the limit.

But there was also concern that since the exposure is primarily focused on the skin, that could be a problem area even if the general exposure was not. According to the letter, the annual dose limit for skin exposure is 50,000 µSv per year. Even if the machines emitted the required 0.25 µSv (higher than what it actually is), it would take nearly 250 exposures per day to reach the skin limit. That doesn’t appear to be a problem.

Pilots are unhappy because they already face higher doses of radiation from constantly flying. The higher altitude for longer periods of time means more exposure. The FAA estimates that someone flying 1,000 block hours between DC and LA at 35,000 feet in a year would receive a dose of 5,000 µSv. Let’s say that means the person took 200 flights (at an average block time of 5 hours). If he had to go through the AIT each time, it would add only 10 µSv, a downright tiny number in the scheme of things.

Bottom line? If pilots are really concerned about radiation exposure, they should stop flying. The additional amount from the AIT machines is negligible when compared to what they get while in the air.

And remember, if you’re taking a couple trips to year to see grandma, the exposure is truly almost nothing. The exposure to radiation, I mean. The exposure to TSA agents resulting in humiliation is a whole different story.

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68 Comments on "Should You Be Afraid of the Body Scanner Raising the Risk of Cancer? Nah, and Neither Should Pilots"

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Sean
Guest
How can we really trust anything from people who write a letter that wouldn’t pass muster with a high school English teacher: “In fact, independent safety data do exist.” -9th paragraph Really… Also the FDA’s response to the concern that the devices could emit higher doses of radiation than advertised is addressed with this: “Manufacturers of any type of electronic product that emits radiation — including full-body x-ray security systems — are required to notify FDA immediately upon discovery of any accidental radiation occurrence or radiation safety defect.” So if basically we have to trust the Manufacturer of Backscatter X-ray… Read more »
Rich
Guest

Sean…you should always be careful when you criticize someone’s writing. Maybe it was just a typo. Kind of like in your last paragraph when you call them “cells” phones. Also, your paragraph beginning with the sentence, “So if basically…” wouldn’t cut the mustard in my English class.

Sean
Guest

luckily, I don’t write official government memos while commenting on the news over my morning coffee. Yes, there was a typo in my writing, but its not an official government report.

Mike
Guest

What’s the gramatical error here? The word “data” can be treated as either singular (using “does” in your example sentence) or plural (using “do” in your example sentence). Singular is more commonly seen, but plural is actually the more formal way to construct the sentence as the word “data” is always plural, with “datum” being the singular form of the word.

cletis walkman
Guest
Sean: You’re right, that sentence in the ninth paragraph probably wouldn’t pass muster with a high school English teacher. But I disagree with where you assign fault; the problem is not that the people who wrote the report are stupid, it’s that many English teachers and numskulls like you aren’t sophisticated enough to know that this sentence is, in fact, grammatically correct. “Data” can be both a count noun as well as a mass noun. Although it is most commonly used as singular mass noun, in many academic and scientific disciplines (say, e.g., a letter from the FDA to UC-Berkeley… Read more »
Sean
Guest
Cletis, The letter was not from the FDA to UC-Berkely scientists. First of all the scientists were at UC-San Francisco, you can find the original text of their letter here: http://www.npr.org/assets/news/2010/05/17/concern.pdf Their letter was addressed to Dr. Holdren, who is currently Assistant to the President for Science and Technology. Dr. Holdren then forwarded these concerns to the FDA who responded to him with the letter cited by Cranky above. In terms of grammar(which I regret mentioning as it distracts from the real issues here), we’ll have to agree to disagree on the proper contemporary usage of the word “data.” There… Read more »
Gromit
Guest

“Data” is the plural of “datum.” In English, “data” may be used in the singular, too, but the plural use certainly is not incorrect.

Alex Hill
Member
What we should be concerned about with the full body scanners is that they are much slower than metal detectors and the TSA isn’t opening enough lanes to handle the lines. My most recent experience was a 34 minute wait at DTW (North Terminal), entirely backed up from the full body scanner the TSA was using for primary screening. Only two of the six lines were open (one metal detector which was only being used occasionally and one full body scanner, plus two X-ray machines for bags). For once, my bags were waiting for me because of how long the… Read more »
Austin
Guest
I respectfully disagree with your conclusion, and will be opting out of AIT scans for the foreseeable future for the following reasons. First, there is still the open question as to the actual dose equivalent of radiation per use. The sievert is not just based on the amount of radiation emitted by the machine (expressed in grays), but reflects the biological impact of the radiation based on the type of radiation and other factors. The question the UCSF scientists have raised is that the 0.05 µSv dose is based on the assumption that the radiation is evenly absorved throughout the… Read more »
Oliver
Guest

I am a bit surprised you didn’t mention the recent AIT/pat-down refusal incident with the ExpressJet pilot as part of the story.

Do pilots current have IDs that are (a) near impossible to forge/alter and (b) does the TSO glancing/pointing flashlight at the pax IDs know how to check them? If so, I’m fine with pilots bypassing the scanners/pat-down. Of course, then FAs are going to ask for the same, with the argument that they are at times behind the secured cockpit door as well (pilot potty break).

Mike
Guest

My problem with that is if the IDs aren’t “nearly impossible to fake” then these same people can end up in the cockput anyway…

Dan
Guest
Two things here: 1. The TSA needs some public resistance, regardless of the actual cause. They’re such a stupid knee-jerk organization that forces their will upon us and then expects us to like it. I’m glad to see some push back on their methods, regardless of the merits of the actual complaint. (Logically, I have a mixed reaction to the nude-o-scope. It may very well have its merits. But the real problem is that the TSA comes up with many inane policies that need to be challenged. I support challenging the TSA for the sake of challenging the TSA on… Read more »
ASFalcon13
Guest
“‘1. The TSA needs some public resistance, regardless of the actual cause.” Agreed, but how do folks go about doing that? There’s serious disincentive for individuals to resist, as significant resistance can lead to missed flights or arrests, so there clearly needs to be some sort of group effort. Are there any organized groups with a loud enough voice to make a dent in this? I can also see speaking through your vote, but which candidates or politicians are pushing for rollback of TSA procedures? It’s overshadowed by bigger issues, like health care or the economy. Seriously, I agree, but… Read more »
David SF eastbay
Member

ASFalcon13 – “””””Seriously, I agree, but what do we do?””””””
————

The one thing everyone can do is write to their/all elected officials in Washington and the White House. Don’t rant, but write a level headed letter as to what troubles you and give any ideas you may have towards the situation. Doing this at least lets those people who have the power to make changes know how you the public feels.

James Williams
Guest
A “Say no to the Nude-o-scope” campaign should be organized. Maybe try to get the upper elites on most airlines to refuse. The airlines usually offer them free accommodation on later flights if they miss them. I think if the Kettles see a bunch of F/C and Elites refusing the Nude-o-scopes, they will follow suit. Maybe also educating them of the health risks with leading questions like: 1. There are decades of research on Climate Change/Global Warning and we don’t all agree on that, how can we be so sure about something with less than 1% of the research? 2.… Read more »
David M
Guest

You mean like this?

http://www.optoutday.com/

Dan
Guest

“Agreed, but how do folks go about doing that?”

Well, that’s exactly why I’m supporting the pilots unions on this one, even if it’s just a “you go guys!” on an internet forum. At least they have the organization (and hopefully some protection) to take a stand. Yes, there may be a few delayed flights (hopefully not canceled) but it might be the price worth paying to screw around with the TSA.

David
Guest

I couldn’t agree more.

So, if enough people opt out and have to go through the pat-downs and then file sexual harassment complaints following the pat-downs, won’t it choke the system and force someone with common sense to think about solutions???

David SF eastbay
Member

“””””So, if enough people opt out and have to go through the pat-downs and then file sexual harassment complaints following the pat-downs, won’t it choke the system and force someone with common sense to think about solutions???”””””
——————–

Sadly with TSA the solution would be instead of a pat down everyone would have to get naked and their clothes hand searched while someone looks over your naked body to make sure you don’t have anything ‘hidden’ anywhere. Think being arrested and stripped searched like you see in a movie or on TV’s Lockdown series.

Jeremy G
Guest
Cranky, your analysis doesn’t cover enough of the relevant issues here. Even highly trained medical technicians have been overdosing patients with excess radiation, sometimes intentionally, and sometimes unaware of the output levels of the CT scan machines being used. See, for example, the LA Times piece from December 2009: “researchers from UC San Francisco found that the same imaging procedure performed at different institutions — or even on different machines at the same hospital — can yield a 13-fold difference in radiation dose, potentially exposing some patients to inordinately high risk.” The NY Times just reported that “manufacturers of CT… Read more »
Oliver
Guest

I’d sure hope that there isn’t some knob on that machine that the blue shirts can use to crank up the radiation level. Is there?

JTW
Guest
It’s there on regular xray machines so they can increase the dose when encountering something “of interest”. Wouldn’t surprise me at all if it’s there on these things as well (and pretty soon all machines are turned up to max at all times “just in case we miss something”). It’s a human rights issue more than a security or health issue though. These things are deliberately designed to take you out of your comfort zone while submitting to government scrutiny. And with the alternative being government condoned sexual harassment, the vast majority of people will do as they’re told and… Read more »
David SF eastbay
Member
“””””He says that crewmembers should have a witness with them during the pat-down process. After that, pilots need to “evaluate their fitness for duty. As has been determined, there is a wide range of possibilities once you submit to a private screening, and the results can be devastating.”””””””” ————— Sorry I don’t get this. Why should a pilot have a witness to be patted down? And ‘evaluate their fitness for duty’, you mean a pilot trained to be calm if their plane is falling out of the sky may go to pieces of a male TSA agents hand brushes up… Read more »
Oliver
Guest

“pat down” in a private setting with a witness causing, uh, unfitness to fly afterwards? What are they implying is going to happen between the three of them in that private screening room?

Bob
Guest
David SF- I think it’s more an issue of the pilots being afraid that one TSA officer may erroneously classify them as “unfit to fly”… e.g, thinking a pilot is drunk if he stumbles a little (never mind that his cold has hurt his sense of balance), or smelling alcohol on a pilot’s breath and not realizing that it’s from his mouthwash, not his flash. Obviously the $9/hour TSA person would have to call a supervisor in situations like these, and perhaps the pilots are being a bit extreme, but I understand their point. If you’re going to be alone… Read more »
James Williams
Guest
I don’t like the shady gray area this sets up. What happens when we find out that the agents were covertly turning up the settings to make the images more clear. People who I’ve seen harass people who cause a metal detector to beep only ceasing when the person volunteers to be patted down. Only then did the agents say never mind and give them less grief. The risks might be low but we don’t have enough data. There needs to be pushback on these regulations that protect us from the last threat, not the next one (like the rubbish… Read more »
Consumer Mike
Guest
It is my opinion that it is VERY dangerous to trust government assurances when the government is trying to sell a new policy or law. I can see possible birth defect, male sterilization or cancer law suits in the future. It will only take one or two machines to fry people before it becomes a national/world disaster. My vote is NO on this new device. I don’t want to glow in the dark!! AND – being sexually molested by incompetent TSA personnel is not an answer either. There needs to be a 3rd person monitor for these aggressive searches. The… Read more »
wjboll
Member

Why isn’t anyone reigning in the TSA?

JTW
Guest

The only ones who could reign in the TSA are DHS and the White House (and possibly a federal court), all of which have a vested interest in not reigning them in.

jaybru
Member

Cranky,

When you write your book: “I Have No Life, I Blog!” I hope you include this topic and the poster comments. I think it expresses, if not solves, many if not most of our daily concerns!

Well, maybe not the mystery vapor trail, but keep up the good work. I await your next topic, or topics, or, whatever!

Bill from DC
Guest

lol jay, me too, me too!

toni596
Member

You had me at the FA’s going into the cockpit when the pilots needed to take a potty break. There HAS to be a logical reason for that, but for the life of me, I cannot figure it out. The mental pictures are freaking me out!

JTW
Guest

by law there have to be at least 2 people in there at all times during aircraft operations.
Used to be there were 2 pilots and a flight engineer (who almost always was a qualified pilot). Now a flight attendant has to come in to replace the pilot who leaves.
While she can’t take over the aircraft if the 2nd pilot needs help, the regulations stand.

David SF eastbay
Member

Think of it the reverse way about pat-downs. Just look around at all the people at the airport the next time you are there and think if you were the security agent would you want to pat-down some of the people you see? Even with super thick gloves and a haz-mat suit I wouldn’t want to touch most of the people in ‘personal’ places you see at airports. Maybe TSA’s own employees may be the largest group to sound off wanting these new machines to be mandatory or you don’t get past security.

Consumer Mike
Guest
David, if you have had the “pleasure” to interface with the individuals that TSA has doing security checks you would better understand the IQ level of these people would not even put them in the direction of the Nobel Prize. The closest comparison that comes to my mind is having the Simpsons doing the security checks. There is NO way these people will question their instructions. Some will undoubtedly invent more as they go along with the new “fondling” rules. AND-just think, people of this caliber are at the controls of the potentially harmful X-Ray machines. Would Homer Simpson even… Read more »
Oliver
Guest

I’ve run into idiot TSA staffers and perfectly polite, normal human beings doing a job.

Just as everywhere else.

For $9/hr you’re certainly not going to get a lot of Nobel prize nominee applicants. That doesn’t mean everyone working at the checkpoints is automatically a Homer Simpson look/behave-alike.

Consumer Mike
Guest

It appears to me that some people will not get concerned until they are presented to a Urologist/TSA with rubber gloves and ordered to “take the position”. Some people are slow learners and don’t see the steady invasion of privacy by the government.

It looks like the militant Islamists have won. We have lowered our Rights to the level of the Muslem states in the middle east.

Allen
Guest
@CF, I get the feeling you think refusing to go through the machine is silly. I’m not sure why that would be the case. As we’ve seen with drug after drug and medical device after medical device over the last decade, the process of having the manufacturer do research and report it to the FDA in terms of safety has some serious issues. They’re not serious in volume of incidents but they’re serious in both that people have died and because many have later been found to at best have poor data. With it’s track record and given the risk… Read more »
Bob
Guest
Cranky, I know this is a small part of your post, but I’d like to pick it apart: “The pilots have long argued, and rightly-so in my opinion, that screening on-duty pilots is ridiculous.” I used to agree with this statement, and can see why some wouldn’t think it logical, but it falls short on one important count. **It’s not what the pilots’ intentions are, it’s what’s in their bags/person as they cross from the unsecured to secured area.** If pilots aren’t screened, who’s to stop a person from doing a “brush pass” on a pilot (or bumping into them,… Read more »
Bob
Guest

Cranky,

Just wanted to add this link (http://www.schneier.com/essay-130.html), where Bruce Schneier argues against any special security-skipping privileges for pilots etc, with a different angle. Worth reading.

ghelart
Member

I would just like to thank CRANKY for some factual information. True, the TSA obviously can’t be trusted… but I like Cranky’s factual explanation.

longtimeobserver
Member

No dosimeters, no cumulative exposure data or record. Why not?

Peter
Guest
Cranky, I think your statistic and data and annual limits are wrong… according to the International Commission on Radiation Protection (ICRP), the annual limits for non-classified workers (ie: non military and non nuclear), such as Flight Crew, the rolling 12 month limits is 6mSv = 600 micro Sievert… The normal annual cosmic radiation on sea level (from normal background radiation that occurs naturally and are exposed by every human being) is approximately 2mSv per annum. Therefore, for normally traveller and Flight Crew or Cabin Crew, they can receive an additional 4 mSv annually before their limits are exceeded. For Flight… Read more »
Peter
Guest

And Cranky just for your information, I work for an airline, so this is where I got all my data, and my airline keep tracks of radiation level experience by flight crew and cabin crew by using mathematical method set forth by the FAA.

Consumer Mike
Guest

One thing I ommitted to say earlier is that those of us who for any medical reason must use radiation for check-ups or treatments could pass the total “safe” level of [annual or life time] radiation recommended by being exposed to the TSA radiation searches.

I think this is an important point, as those that medically are exposed to radiation above normal annual doses would seem to be more at risk for radiation damage.

bob
Guest
trackback

[…] below. Besides, sometimes the comments sections is far more interesting than the post. (Look at the body scanner radiation thread this week for proof.) I’ll certainly jump in, but I won’t be leading the discussion on Fridays as […]

David SF eastbay
Member

So is a 300 pound blob of fat person going to be less effected by the radiation exposure then a skinny 18yr old anorexic teenage girl or a 5 yr old? Will a padding of fat help ‘cushion’ the effect of the radiation these machines put out?

Skymanak
Guest

Does the flying public understand and know that the baggage handlers, catering employees, fleet service (airplane cleaners), maintenance personal, etc do NOT go through TSA screening and have access to all the “secured” areas at an airport and aircraft?

Skymanak
Guest

oops, “at an airport” should read “of airports, nationwide?”

David SF eastbay
Member

Did you see todays ‘Frank and Ernest’ cartoon in the paper? It shows them behind a desk with baggage around them and an airline sign on the wall. They are talking to a man and the caption says “Your luggage is lost. But the good news is the full-body scan says you’re in excellent health!”

So not only has there been a story in the paper or online about this every day this week, but now it’s appearing in cartoons. With all this negative hype, will something change besides the pat-down procedures for kids under 12 will be different?

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