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Increasing Safety or Risking Lives – Airport Body Scanners

All this while, it has been the cabin- or the check-in luggage which is x-rayed as part of the airport security. But the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) of USA intends to undertake whole body scanning of public traveling by air. The intent of using low density x-rays, delivered at high speed, both in front and back of the person, is to detect hidden weapons or explosives. This is in lieu of patting, a practice not appreciated by many.

Does implementation of this screening increases the risk of exposure to radioactivity at the cost of enhanced safety? Though the Authorities, both TSA and FDA (Food and Drug Administration), assert that this is a safe procedure, there are concerns in absence of independent safety data. So also, there are fears of increase in risk to those exposed, including the young, the pregnant, the aged  and the immunocompromised passengers. One group, especially susceptible, is the aircrew, both the pilots and the cabin crew, considering the number of exposures during the tour of their duty.

It is claimed that the exposure to radiation dose is ‘too low’, somewhere in the range of 0.05 to 0.10 μSv. The annual limits for general population, as recommended by Nuclear Regulatory Authority, is 250 μSv from a single source of radiation, while the total exposure limit is 1000 μSv. Thus, a single exposure of the airport scan is not likely to be dangerous, but the major point being missed is, that it adds to the prevalent exposure during air travel as well as natural environmental radiation. Here at increased risk are the older passengers, with increased chances of developing skin cancers, as well as there are risks of sperm defects because of the location of the testes. Data on risk of radiation amongst children and adolescents is not available either. There is no epidemiological data to substantiate that the risk, as asserted by the Authorities, is minimal, particularly the overall population risk.

Thus, despite the claims of their being safe, the whole-body scanners, may not be as safe as they are made out to be. And one must not forget inadvertent exposure of innocent passengers and the aircrew, in case of a malfunctioning machine or human error. There are strict safety regulations in place wherever ionizing radiation is in use, particularly in hospitals and labs, but are the same measures in place in the airports with full-body scanners too?

Reference

1. Nelson R. Are Full-body airport scanners safe? (http://www.medscape.com accessed on 22 Jan 11)

2. Products for security screening of people.

3. AOL Investigation: No proof TSA scanners are safe

4. A few facts about TSA’s full-body scanners

Acknowledgement: Image courtesy www.freedigitalphotos.net

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