Are Airport Full Body Scanners A Health Menace?

Dear readers, the headline may seem alarmist, so let’s work though the claims and counter claims:

Full body scanning involves radiation. The medical profession has been pretty remiss about pointing out the dangers of radiation, even though radiation can cause cancer. That’s probably because a quite a few diagnostic tests involve the use of radiation, and they are too often cavalier about it (has any doctor about to give you an X-ray bothered asking how many you’ve had over your lifetime?) Yes, we’ve had some exceptions, like doctors arguing against the recent fad of annual full body CT scans because the dose is equal to that of several years of background radiation, but that posture is comparatively rare (one of my pet beefs has long been the until recent recommendation to get annual mammograms starting at age 40. Mammograms are a terrible test, with a high level of false positives and false negatives; a manual exam by an experienced practitioner has a much higher success rate of catching the fast-growing, dangerous cancers, but doesn’t fit the modern idea of what a test should look like. Oh, and all those radiologists have an installed base of equipment they need to pay off. Think that might have an effect on their view of the situation?)

The writing here (from NoWorldSystem) is sensationalistic. While it does cite medical experts, but does not provide data about the doses involved:

TSA Security Laboratory Director Susan Hallowell recently announced the agency’s intent to use back-scatter X-ray machines for passenger surveillance. These hugely expensive, closet-sized zappers can find the plastic bombs hidden in grandma’s underpants, while delivering a smacking dose of ionizing radiation to her breasts and thyroid gland.

Yves here. I hate to sound heartless, but I wouldn’t get too wound up about zapping older people. Unless they are aging jet-setters, they won’t get too many doses in what is left of their life. It’s younger people, particularly corporate road warriors and airline staff, who are at the most risk. Back to the details:

Virtually all passengers and airline crews who pass through airport screening checkpoints in the U.S. may soon be forced to submit to compulsory, whole-body X-ray exposure…

Officials must naturally defend compulsory passenger X-rays as harmless. But they are signing no guarantees because ionizing radiation in the X-ray spectrum damages and mutates both chromosomal DNA and structural proteins in human cells. If this damage is not repaired, it can lead to cancer. New research shows that even very low doses of X-ray can delay or prevent cellular repair of damaged DNA, raising questions about the safety of routine medical X-rays. Unborn babies can become grotesquely disfigured if their mothers are irradiated during pregnancy. Heavily X- rayed persons of childbearing age can sustain chromosomal damage, endangering offspring. Radiation damage is cumulative and each successive dose builds upon the cellular mutation caused by the last. It can take years for radiation damage to manifest pathology.

A leading U.S. expert on the biological effects of X-radiation is Dr. John Gofman, Professor Emeritus of Molecular and Cell Biology, University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Gofman’s exhaustive research leads him to conclude that there is NO SAFE DOSE-LEVEL of ionizing radiation. His studies indicate that radiation from medical diagnostics and treatment is a causal co-factor in 50 percent of America’s cancers and 60 percent of our ischemic (blood flow blockage) heart disease. He stresses that the frequency with which Americans are medically X-rayed “makes for a significant radiological impact.”

This highly credentialed nuclear physicist states: “The fact, that X-ray doses are so seldom measured, reflects the false assumption that doses do not matter…[but] they do matter enormously. And each bit of additional dose matters, because any X-ray photon may be the one which sets in motion the high-speed, high energy electron which causes a carcinogenic or atherogenic [smooth muscle] mutation. Such mutations rarely disappear. The higher their accumulated number in a population, the higher will be the population’s mortality rates from radiation-induced cancer and ischemic heart disease.”

A report in the British medical journal Lancet noted that after breast mammograms were introduced in 1983, the incidence of ductal carcinoma (12 percent of breast cancer) increased by 328 percent, of which 200 percent was due to the use of mammography itself. A Lawrence Berkeley National Lab study has demonstrated that breast tissue is extremely susceptible to radiation-induced cancer, confirming warnings by numerous experts that mammograms can initiate the very cancers they may later identify. Dr. Gofman believes that medical radiation is a co-factor in 75 percent of breast cancer cases. So why would girls and women want their breast tissues irradiated every time they take a commercial flight?…

Airline pilots and cabin crews suffer a significant incidence of leukemia, skin and breast cancer due to chromosomal damage from ionizing cosmic radiation encountered during years of flying at high altitudes.

Dr. Gofman’s research reveals a dose-response relationship between medical X-rays and fatal heart disease, the number one killer of Americans. He found that X-radiation is a powerful atherogen, causing mutations in smooth muscle cells of coronary arteries. These radiation damaged cells are unable to process lipoproteins correctly, resulting in atherosclerotic plaques and mini tumors in the arteries. Radiation used to treat breast cancer can badly damage the heart.

As Dr. Gofman and other experts argue for improved diagnostic techniques and equipment to reduce medically necessary X-ray exposure, TSA gears up to impose frivolous, nonmusical exposure, even though conventional airline security measures have proven adequate since 9/11. To date, the National Institutes of Health, the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association have been silent about TSA’s sinister plan to deliver unlimited doses of carcinogenic, mutagenic, heart damaging radiation to the flying public. No health studies are planned to gauge short and long-term effects of the radiation TSA will deliver to inspect our innards

Yves here. Now the claim is made elsewhere that the radiation level is no biggie because the dose is lower than that needed to penetrate tissue:

The amount of radiation used during this scan is equal to 15 minutes of exposure to natural background radiation such as the sun’s rays. One scan emits less than 10 microrem, the unit used to measure radiation. Comparably, an hour on an airplane at a high altitude exposes a passenger to 300 microrem, and the average person is exposed to 1,000 microrem of radiation over the course of a normal day.

Yves here. Note that even with this cheery info, the doctors asked about it were not fully on board with the “no risk” posture:

Dr. Albert J. Fornace Jr., an expert in molecular oncology at Georgetown University Medical Center, said such a low dose was inconsequential, even for pregnant women. “Obviously, no radiation is even better than even a very low level,” Dr. Fornace said. “But this is trivial.” But David J. Brenner, a professor of radiation oncology at Columbia University, said that even though the risk for any individual was extremely low, he would still avoid it.

Yves here. One concern is the almost certain lack of monitoring of the output of these machines once installed (as in it could wind up being much in a malfunctioning machine). And for frequent fliers and airline crew, I’m not sure any additional radiation, even a seemingly small amount, is a good idea. The radiation exposures that crews and passengers get is worst at high latitudes (I understand NY-London is worst than most). And they get a fair amount to begin with. The WHO gives some parameters:

The overall effect for flight crew and travellers is an increased radiation exposure during flights as compared to staying on the ground. Flight crew passes up to 1000 hours per year on board of flying planes, which leads to annual effective radiation doses in the range of 2 to 5 milliSievert (mSv) for most crew. Occasional travellers obtain a fraction of this value through less frequent leisure or occupational flights. In comparison, the natural background radiation amounts to 2 to 3 mSv per year at most geographical locations worldwide.

Yves again. And yet again, the government-private sector revolving door means that the makers of scanners have the former head of Homeland Security making their case (hat tip reader I on the Ball Patriot). So whether these scanners are a plus or not, we seem destined to get them:

Since the attempted bombing of a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day, former Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff has given dozens of media interviews touting the need for the federal government to buy more full-body scanners for airports.

Michael Chertoff, former Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, speaks at the ceremonial swearing-in of Paul J. Fishman, US Attorney for the District of New Jersey at Rutgers Law School in Newark, N.J., Monday, Dec. 14, 2009.

What he has made little mention of is that the Chertoff Group, his security consulting agency, includes a client that manufactures the machines. The relationship drew attention after Chertoff disclosed it on a CNN program Wednesday, in response to a question.

An airport passengers’ rights group on Thursday criticized Chertoff, who left office less than a year ago, for using his former government credentials to advocate for a product that benefits his clients.

“Mr. Chertoff should not be allowed to abuse the trust the public has placed in him as a former public servant to privately gain from the sale of full-body scanners under the pretense that the scanners would have detected this particular type of explosive,” said Kate Hanni, founder of, which opposes the use of the scanners.

Chertoff’s advocacy for the technology dates back to his time in the Bush administration. In 2005, Homeland Security ordered the government’s first batch of the scanners — five from California-based Rapiscan Systems.

Yves again. Frankly, health issue or no, I find these ever escalating encroachments on my person to be unwarranted, but don’t get me started on the civil liberties issues.


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  1. Jojo

    The amount of radiation used during this scan is equal to 15 minutes of exposure to natural background radiation such as the sun’s rays. One scan emits less than 10 microrem, the unit used to measure radiation. Comparably, an hour on an airplane at a high altitude exposes a passenger to 300 microrem, and the average person is exposed to 1,000 microrem of radiation over the course of a normal day.
    So what is the problem? That we are going to be getting too much radiation along with the rat hairs and feces in our food?

    The above radiation levels don’t sound bad at all. I know people who spend 10 hours or more laying in the sun on the weekends (some with SPF 2-4!) [shrug].

    On the plus side, we are going to have to get more resistant to radiation if we are going to travel in space. So more exposure to radiation will “separate the men from the boys”, leaving future generations with people more capable of withstanding the rigors of space travel… :)

    1. Yves Smith Post author


      Did you see that:

      1. The headline had a question mark in it?

      2. I said we were going to work through the arguments?

      3. One respected scientist said any unnecessary exposure is bad (radiation is cumulative) but I pointed out that scary piece omitted the hard data on the actual exposure level and presented it myself?

      As I said, this may be still be a cause for concern with road warriors and airline staff. But if enough people get whipped up, whether for good reason or not, they may allow for patdowns, which I would prefer regardless.

      1. Jojo

        Yes, it is good to avoid/reduce radiation exposure where possible. And this is standard medical advice.

        But given the numbers quoted above, I just don’t see that backscatter scanning is that much of a problem. Sure, the frequent traveler/airline personnel will get more exposure, but perhaps that is the price to be paid for safety?

        Personally, I’d prefer the machine to pat downs by TSA people. And pat downs won’t pick up anything shoved inside body orifices or sewn into clothing seams, etc.

        How about sniffer dogs? I know people might get upset with a dog sniffing their crotches, but what if you had to sit on some sort of screen chair?

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          I’d rather be patted down. And they now have equipment that tests for bomb residue on clothing. Hands and wrists are the best places to check. The whole orifice thing is a stretch. You can’t carry much at all (drug types have to ingest condoms full of the illicit substance, and you are back to real X-rays and serious radiation if that’s a worry) and you have risk of rupture and loss of material.

          1. Jojo

            You don’t need to carry very much. Nightline had a short video of a government test of what 50 grams of PETN could do (the amount the shoe bomber had). It blew out the side of the airplane! I wish I could find that clip! It was pretty cool.

            That amount could easily fit in your rectum, so no swallowing needed. But I believe that a dog could still smell it there.

            Whatever. I seriously doubt that the government is going to listen to anything we have to say on the subject anyway.

            The only thing that has apparently stopped them from using the scanner so far is the Puritan mentality of certain segments of the USA population.

  2. the_hube

    Whenever one looks at this issue, it is important to distinguish between “active” systems, which bombard you with radiation and measure the echo, and “passive” systems, which only measure the energy naturally emitted by the body.
    For an example of a passive system, see

    Note that nobody is discussing the obvious. The big fail on Christmas was that actionable intelligence was not acted on. All the screeners in the world will do nothing without adequate human response.

    1. Peripheral Visionary

      Agreed. All this is simply noise to distract from the underlying issue, that the security apparatus failed to take action on a known high-risk situation. Once again, national security is attempting to paper over gross failures in human intelligence with expensive (and ineffective) technical intelligence.

      Setting aside the failure on the human intelligence side (which should be addressed first; e.g., how the watch lists are used, if they are used at all other than to harrass random passengers), I would also second the call for using passive detection systems. Explosive-sniffing dogs are effective and uninvasive, but are surprisingly unpopular; most likely because they do not involve lucrative government contracts that benefit well-connected players, e.g., former heads of Homeland Security.

      As usual, the solution favored by government will be the one that involves the greatest cost to the taxpayers and the greatest loss to personal liberties of the citizens.

    2. Jojo

      Yes, the action failure needs to be dealt with, as it was supposed to have been dealt with after 9/11! Seems it doesn’t matter who is in power, the civil servants remain the same across administrations and they are mainly incompetent.

      Still, had the scanner been used, the guy in this case WOULD have been caught, regardless of any failures to communicate/act by the various people/agencies involved in this fiasco.

  3. DoctoRx

    Per Wikipedia on “ionizing radiation”, different types of radiation act differently. E.g., alpha radiation is twenty times as damaging as Xray type radiation for the same quantitative exposure.

    In 2005, even XRays were classified as carcinogens by the US Government. So, assuming the scanners are XRay-type, I agree w Yves that for most people this is a minimal deal. But it’s still disconcerting, especially for someone who has already had a lot of XRay radiation for prior medical reasons.

    1. JeffC

      Random House Dictionary:

      1. The amount of ionizing radiation required to produce the same
      biological effect as one rad of high-penetration x-rays.

      “Same biological effect” is the key phrase here. Basically, the units
      quoted already take into account the differing biological effects you

  4. Patrick

    This all leads to cavity searches and profiling if the jihadis keep this up. The fact that scanners would not have picked up the underwear bomber should tell you every thing you need to know. Follow the money and see who has interest in these companies.

    Look, over there, an 80 year old white haired nun. Go search her she could be a terrorist!

    1. Jojo

      From what I have read, you are incorrect in stating that a scanner would not have picked up the package taped to the underware bombers leg.

  5. Me

    I agree that this is all about the money. Clearly collecting more information is not the answer as most of the time the “terrorists” are already on watch lists and some how sneak through. As for the “this is what must be done to keep us safe” or “you can’t fight the government” mentality, wake up! because you are becoming a boiled frog.

  6. Francois T

    On the mamograms at 40:
    “Oh, and all those radiologists have an installed base of equipment they need to pay off. Think that might have an effect on their view of the situation?”

    Yves, there is no need to bother with the interrogation mark. In the wake of the recent recommendations of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force about getting regular mammograms starting at age 50 instead of 40, we were treated with an onslaught of angry, emotion-laced and pretty much fact-free statements from some usually august and staid corners of the medical establishment like the American College of Radiology Breast Imaging Commission and the American Cancer Society.

    This caught the attention of the Bioethics Forum of the Hasting Center. Two of their fellows, Adriane Fugh-Berman and Alicia Bell, published a report entitled Mammography and the Corporate Breast. (rather telling, no?)

    Their conclusion is blunt:

    Mammography makes money for the people and organizations that have created this sham of a controversy. When critics with conflicts of interest are banned from the argument, the controversy vanishes.

    So yes! all those radiologists (and oncologists) have an installed base of equipment they need to pay off. This has an obvious effect on their view of the situation.

    Et Vlan!

  7. Francois T

    About airport security;

    If there is one airline company who has every incentive to be anal (speaking of cavity search) about safety, that would be El-Al, the Israeli national airline, no?

    Ever heard of El-Al having full-body scanners, facial recon technology, electronic sniffers and all that jazz? Not me.

    Yet, they’ve managed for decades to prevent terrorist attacks against their passengers.

    Could it be that (just asking BTW) their personal at the gates are very well trained in psychology, counter-terrorism and security technology? That their job has a career path, with possibilities of promotions, upward and lateral, with some quaint add ons such as health care benefits, vacations, decent pay and constant professional training?

    Is it even remotely possible that they’ve decided that investing in the best security detector possible (a.k.a. the human brain) was worth a sustained effort?

    Again…just asking!

  8. Buzz

    I suppose that some of these airports that are using these scanners will pressure all passengers to go through the scanners even if they travel often and for health concerns choose to have a pat down search. I guess I will need to read the fine print on the ticket to find out if my money for the flight will be refunded in full if I so choose not to be radiated several times on my journey. I live overseas and often go through two, three sometimes four airports on a single trip to visit my family in the USA. I travel so often that before my passport expires I am asked to renew it because they are unable to add any more pages. You can be sure that if I am diagnosed with cancer the TSA or airlines are not going to help pay my medical bills for something that they increased the risk of.

  9. CancerTruth

    As was mentioned in the article, after years of studying the effects of exposure to radiation, Dr. John W. Gofman concluded that there is NO SAFE DOSE-LEVEL of radiation.

    And the potential danger applies to both the millimeter wavelength imaging scanners (terahertz radiation) and the backscatter X-ray scanners (ionizing radiation).

    Terahertz radiation has the potential to literally rip apart or unzip double-stranded DNA. This, in turn, creates bubbles that could interfere with critical processes (like DNA replication and gene expression).

    Isn’t it illegal to expose people to radiation without medical justification? How is the government allowed to forcibly irradiate us at airports? What about the harmful effects on women in their first trimester of pregnancy, when DNA damage (caused by radiation) poses the highest risk of genetic abnormalities?

    IMHO, these airport scanners should be banned. Radiation damages the DNA in your cells and much more. It accumulates in the body during one’s lifetime and when it reaches a certain level, cancer is nearly certain.

    At best, this is intrusive and unethical, and at worst, illegal.

  10. Nick

    It is true no safe does of radiation is safe. If we walk out of our door and the sun hits us there is a chance that that specific photon at that specific moment will be the one that causes a reaction leading to cancer. However those odds are really small.

    What we do know is not which specific photon will hurt us but that if we are bombarded by more photos the odds that one will hurt us goes up. So of course it is a fact that full body scans increase our risk of cancer.

    The question is how much, and the truth is that it is a level that is much lower than what 99.9999% of people would worry about. If you are not worried about increased skin cancer because you walked between your home and your street parked car this morning, then full body scans shouldn’t worry you either.

    If you are a person who made sure they were fully covered and had hat and parasol to make sure they didn’t catch cancer when going to their car, then this should bother you.

    However the vast majority of people walk to their cars without a concern.

  11. Nick

    That said I have other concerns about these scanners beyond the privacy and health which stop me from supporting their implementation. Just health seems to be one that can be crossed off the list.

  12. Josh Strike

    To people who believe flying is a “privilege” not a right: You’re saying that freedom of movement is not a right. If that’s not a right, we have no rights at all.

    And the people who dispense or withhold your “privilege” to travel — are they judges? Are they educated at all? TSA screeners are the kids who were too dumb or mentally unstable to get in the Army. They’ve watched too many cop shows and have that trigger-happy look about them. They assume everyone’s guilty until proven innocent. That ain’t justice and it ain’t American.

    The government is trying to dehumanize the population and make us comfortable with being animals. And of course, government officials do not have to submit to this humiliating, dangerous invasion of privacy.

    WHEN YOU FLY, DO NOT SUBMIT TO THE RADIATION. Freedom of travel is a RIGHT, and it cannot be taken away from you. When someone takes your rights away by force, that is not revocation of privilege — it is coercion. If someone points a gun at you, comply, but do NOT go into that thing willingly.

    If every passenger refuses to go through these machines and demands to speak with a supervisor, and the supervisor’s supervisor, the whole scheme to turn us into sheep will collapse and they will be forced to treat us as human beings.

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