No Proof TSA Scanners Are Safe
December 22nd, 2010
By: Andrew Schneider
If you believe the government, you have little to worry about from the radiation beam flitting over the front and back of your body in airport watchdogs’ search for explosives and other hidden implements of terror this holiday season.
The Transportation Security Administration says that when working properly, the backscatter Advance Imaging Technology X-ray scanners emit an infinitesimal, virtually harmless amount of radiation.
The problem is that the TSA offers no proof that anyone is checking to see if the machines are “working properly.”
The TSA ticks off a litany of groups that it says are involved with determining and ensuring the safety of the controversial devices, including:
- The Food and Drug Administration
- The U.S. Army Public Health Command
- Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory
- The Health Physics Society
However, AOL News has found that those organizations say they have no responsibility for the continuing safety of the alternative to TSA’s grope.
Further, the Homeland Security agency refuses to release exposure data to top non-TSA safety experts eager to evaluate any risk.
Homeland Security has said the justification for head-to-toe scanning was provided last Christmas, when Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried and failed to ignite a bomb hidden in his underwear on a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.
But the questioning of the TSA’s “working properly” assurances becomes even more significant with the numerous reports this year that its screeners sometimes missed as many as seven out of 10 guns, knives and mock explosive devices that government testers tried to sneak through airport check points.
Why Worry About Exposure to Scanners?
People are subjected to hundreds of millions of diagnostic X-rays every year, virtually all without incident. So why all the angst over the TSA’s scanners, which, when working properly, emit far lower doses of radiation?
To assure that the doses are as low as they are billed to be, it is imperative to accurately calibrate the machines and carefully monitor their performance.
A spike in the intensity of the scanning beam, or a slowdown or pause in the timing of that beam’s sweep across a traveler’s body, could cause significant radiation damage, AOL News was told by a radiologist and two radiological health physicists, who are trained and certified to ensure the safety of those exposed to or working with radioactive material.
The FDA and many state radiation safety offices license, inspect and monitor almost all medical radiation devices everywhere they’re used. But even identical X-ray machines used in nonmedical government venues fall outside FDA scrutiny, the agency said last week.
Nevertheless, the TSA maintains that when it comes to the safety of the full-body scanners, “everything is working fine,” an agency spokesman told AOL News.
“The safety of our scanning systems are routinely and thoroughly tested by the manufacturer, FDA, the U.S. Army, the Health Physics Society, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and others,” the spokesman said when asked last month how the TSA knows if the scanning system is safe.
The TSA does do some of its own inspections of the scanners, Sarah Horowitz, another TSA press officer, explained.
“Preventive maintenance checks, including radiation safety surveys, are performed at least once every 12 months,” she said.
It sounds reassuring when the TSA lists the organizations as the guardians of the safety of the public passing between the two radiation-emitting walls of the scanners.
But in interviews with those same safety sentinels, AOL News found that none of the groups was doing any routine testing of operating scanners in airports. Further, they all said they have no responsibility to monitor the safety of those passing through the airport scanners.
For example, the FDA says it doesn’t do routine inspections of any nonmedical X-ray unit, including the ones operated by the TSA.
The FDA has not field-tested these scanners and hasn’t inspected the manufacturer. It has no legal authority to require owners of these devices — in this case, TSA — to provide access for routine testing on these products once they have been sold, FDA press officer said Karen Riley said.