Senators sound airport X-ray alarms, call for new radiation health-risk study

C.J. Ciaramella Contributor
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Five senators introduced a bill Tuesday that would require an independent scientific study of the health effects of certain X-ray scanners now in wide use in airports across the country.

Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Daniel Akaka of Hawaii, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Scott Brown of Massachusetts, and Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan introduced the legislation, which aims to require the Department of Homeland Security “to contract with an independent laboratory to study the health effects of backscatter X-ray machines … and provide improved notice to airline passengers.”

During a Nov. 2, 2011 Senate hearing, TSA administrator John Pistole said he would commission such an independent study, but a week later he told CNN that a report from the DHS inspector general would likely eliminate the need for it.

That decision did not sit well with Sen. Collins and several other members of Congress, who believe potentially cancer-causing doses of radiation could be jeopardizing the health of airline passengers.

“I have urged TSA to move toward only radiation-free screening technology,” Collins said Tuesday on the Senate floor. “In the meantime, an independent study is needed to protect the public and to determine what technology is worthy of taxpayer dollars.”

Collins said she was inspired, in part, by the story of a pregnant woman who miscarried after going through an airport X-ray scanner.

“Only two weeks later, she suffered a miscarriage which she attributes to the radiation she received from this scan,” Collins said. “We will never know for certain the cause of this family’s loss, but they believe in their hearts that the backscatter radiation is to blame.”

The TSA has deployed about 250 of the machines in U.S. airports. The scanners use low doses of X-rays, which can cause cancer at high enough levels, to detect objects passengers may be carrying. The TSA has repeatedly said the machines use such low doses — about the same amount of radiation as sitting on an airplane for three hours — that the health risks are non-existent.

“We are satisfied with all scientific research showing this technology is safe for all passengers,” a TSA spokesperson said Tuesday. “However, working with Congress, we have committed to further confirm the safety of these machines by exploring our options to commission another independent study.”

An investigation by ProPublica concluded that none of the studies cited by the TSA to justify the scanners’ safety has been published in a peer-reviewed journal. Peer review is a publishing process that allows qualified experts to determine the value and trustworthiness of a scientific article before it can be published.

Research suggests no amount of radiation is completely safe. A 2006 National Academy of Sciences report found “no compelling evidence” that there is such a thing as a risk-free level of radiation exposure.

And since millions of Americans are exposed to radiation in backscatter scanners every year, the odds of some new cancer cases emerging are higher than they were before the technology was introduced.

“Even though it’s a very small risk, when you expose that number of people, there’s a potential for some of them to get cancer,” Kathleen Kaufman, the former radiation management director in Los Angeles County, told ProPublica.

The European Commission banned the use of backscatter X-ray scanners in 2011, saying it undertook the move “in order not to risk jeopardizing citizens’ health and safety.” Only scanners which do not use X-ray technology are allowed for passenger screening at EU airports.

Because the scanners are not used for medical purposes, they are not subject to the same Food and Drug Administration testing as other X-ray machines.

“As a doctor, I’ve learned that we should use X-ray machines only with the utmost care,” Sen. Coburn said in a statement. “The potential health risks from the radiation emitted by these machines should require TSA and the Department of Homeland Security to evaluate their safety in the same manner that the FDA would scrutinize the use of similar medical equipment.”

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C.J. Ciaramella