Editorial

Cancer on the concourse

Becky Akers Freelance Writer

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has insisted for years that its notorious body-scanners at the nation’s airports are “safe for all passengers, including children, pregnant women, and individuals with medical implants.”

That claim certainly defies the usual thinking on X-rays. Experts have long warned that the damage that radiation wreaks on human flesh negates its diagnostic benefits; it should be used sparingly, if at all, under very limited conditions. So how does the TSA know that irradiating millions of passengers regardless of their physical condition is perfectly fine?

Because the manufacturer of its equipment says so.

That’s right: neither the TSA nor any other agency has tested the contraptions or their effects on the public’s health. Ditto for independent labs.

Only the manufacturer’s word backs the TSA’s absurd allegation. The scanners sell for about $180,000 each; approximately 2,000 commercial concourses across the country “require” at least one — and often many. You needn’t be a cynic to doubt the manufacturer’s objectivity with that much profit at stake.

Last year, a group of four scientists urged the Obama administration to obtain a disinterested evaluation before unleashing more scanners on us. Dr. John Sedat is a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco; his three colleagues are experts on cancer and radiation. They wrote the White House on April 6, 2010, “to call your attention to serious concerns about the potential health risks of the … backscatter X-ray airport security scanners.”

They explained that while medical X-rays diffuse throughout the body, these concentrate on the skin. So the dose to your poor epidermis is far higher than the TSA admits. And what about “glitches in power”? Or in the software? What if a mechanical part breaks? If any of these should “[stop] the device” even momentarily, they “could cause an intense radiation dose to a single spot…”

Given the technology’s risks, the scientists exercised remarkable restraint. They didn’t demand its immediate recall but suggested instead “a meeting of an impartial panel of experts that would include medical physicists and radiation biologists at which all of the available relevant data is reviewed.”

Naturally, the TSA resented this reasonable request. It scrambled for testimony — not actual tests — that the scanners are safe.

The FDA obliged. It said it regulates radiation, reviewed its history of regulating radiation, and pooh-poohed the scientists’ fears because, after all, it regulates radiation. Adding insult to injury, the TSA co-signed this propaganda.

The TSA also enlisted Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory. When the lab “confirm[ed] that the radiation doses for the individuals being screened, operators, and bystanders were well below the dose limits specified by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI),” the TSA implied that Johns Hopkins endorsed its scanners.

Not so fast: Johns Hopkins argued “its study only demonstrates that the radiation dosage is under the limit set by ANSI,” according to International Business Times, but “the safety of the machines is a somewhat different question.”

That wasn’t the only egg on the TSA’s face. In March, the manufacturer revealed that its technicians had understated the risks of using the scanners. “It would appear that the emissions are 10 times higher,” one of the TSA’s spokeswomen confessed to Wired.com. “We understand it as a calculation error.” Well, hey, what’s a little calculation error among friends? Sure enough, the TSA reiterated its Big Lie — the scanners are safe — and still refused to sideline them.

Meanwhile, our heroic scientists tried again. Almost a year to the day after their first letter, they wrote another. It hit the news last week.

“There is still no rigorous hard data for the safety of X-ray airport passenger scanners,” they fretted. Not only has the TSA refused to permit independent testing, the manufacturer defied and insulted scientific standards by “invit[ing]” Johns Hopkins “to observe a mock-up of components (spare parts)” rather than an actual gizmo onsite in an airport. Then the TSA so “heavily redact[ed]” Johns Hopkins’ report that “there is no way to repeat” — and verify — “any of [the] measurements. … The data given … indicate that there must be something wrong.”

There’s a lot wrong. The TSA squanders $8 billion per year saving us from terrorism so we can die of cancer. No wonder Dr. Sedat told Wired.com “he’s not going to get on an airplane again … I’m not going to go through these machines. And I’m not going to be groped either.”

Why hasn’t Congress long since abolished the TSA? Until it does, protect yourself as Dr. Sedat does from this abusive agency. Don’t fly.

Becky Akers is a free-lance writer and historian who has published with Barron’s, the Christian Science Monitor, the Washington Post, the New York Post, the Independent Review, and many other publications and websites.