TSA full body scanners are a bust!

by Ned Levi on November 15, 2010

TSA full body scanners

Last week unions representing US Airways and American Airlines pilots began to urge their members to “opt-out” of full-body scanning at airport security checkpoints. They cited health risks and privacy concerns.

I applaud Captain Cleary and both the US Airways and American Airlines pilots for “calling out” TSA on the scanner issue. I think they are right, but believe they haven’t recognized the larger picture.

It’s true there are more safety questions about these full body scanners than answers.

The effects of x-ray exposure are cumulative. With such a low dose, backscatter x-ray seems safe for most occasional travelers, but I think the jury is still out for frequent fliers, especially ones who have had significant x-ray or other nuclear radiation diagnostic or treatment procedures for medical purposes.

What’s more, Dr. John Sedat, Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of California in San Francisco, said that a government statement supporting full-body x-ray safety had “many misconceptions.” Dr. Sedat warned that radiation from the devices has been dangerously underestimated and could lead to an increased risk of skin cancer.

According to TSA, millimeter wave (MMW) scanners, the other type of scanner, along with backscatter x-ray scanners, which comprise TSA’s scanner arsenal, are safe. The problem is, not only don’t we know if they are safe for humans, we don’t know if they are safe for medical implants, despite TSA’s protests.

In fact, there is some evidence that it’s possible for the terahertz radiation emanating from MMW scanners to damage human DNA. In January, I wrote about a study by Boian S. Alexandrov (and colleagues) at the Center for Nonlinear Studies at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. It showed terahertz waves could “…unzip double-stranded DNA, creating bubbles in the double strand that could significantly interfere with processes such as gene expression and DNA replication.” That’s serious if accurate.

We don’t know if the MMW scanners are safe because, to date, there has been no long-term third party safety testing of these scanners or their terahertz radiation. There have been no clinical trials for multiple exposures to terahertz waves, accumulated over a long period of time. In fact, the FDA, has never granted approval for any such devices even though they clearly qualify as “medical devices.”

I have the same safety concerns which Captain Cleary has, but these safety concerns are not the most important problem of these full body scanners.

Ben Wallace, Conservative Member of Parliament in the UK, showed he understands the problem. Last year, he sharply criticized Prime Minister Gordon Brown, for British security’s over-reliance on scanning technology for airport security. He also took time to point out that x-ray backscatter scanners would be no more likely to detect the Christmas Day bomb than a millimeter-wave radio scanner would have been.

TSA has told us repeatedly that their full body scanners don’t penetrate the skin. They penetrate our clothing, so TSA can see what we’re hiding beneath our clothing, if anything.

Either scanner can detect items such as metallic and nonmetallic weapons (guns, knives, box cutters, and even the Glock advanced synthetic polymer pistol) and dense explosives, some of which can’t be found through the use of metal detectors.

The problem is these scanners can’t find items which have a low density, such as powder, many liquids or thin plastics. They can’t detect any object having the same or lower density than clothing.

They can’t detect explosives in the form of a fine powder like that used in the attempted bombing of Flight 253. Neither the backscatter x-ray or MMW scanner could have detected the “Panty Bomber’s” explosive in the airport.

They can detect the classic plastic explosive, C4, in a densely molded form hidden under a passenger’s clothing.

They can’t detect a stick of C4 hidden in a body cavity, an illegal drug concealment method with a long history of use in the US.

Full body scanners, costing up to $200K installed, are less able to detect explosives than an explosives sniffing dog, and no better than well trained security agents using a standard pat-down at finding weapons.

Yesterday, you might have heard me speaking about this problem with travel expert, Arthur Frommer, on his weekly radio program, “The Travel Show.” We discussed the full body scanner privacy, safety, and efficiency issues I’ve been writing about in my Consumer Traveler column for almost a year.

We also discussed what I view as the “bottom line” for these scanners. They just don’t make us safer!

In fact, by relying on these scanners, TSA is making us less safe. When you go through a full body scanner you don’t get a standard pat-down, the kind which could detect another “Panty Bomber” trying to bring down a plane. TSA plans to generally depend on the scanners to detect any weapon or explosive a terrorist might bring on a plane, even though they aren’t capable of accomplishing that task.

We need TSA to adopt reasonable and intelligent procedures and methods which will actually make us safer. Getting rid of these scanners, and cancelling future orders, while employing explosive sniffing dogs would go a long way in improving air transportation passenger safety.

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  • MidMom8949

    Well, I infinitely would prefer dogs to scanners, but then people would have to worry about allergies;-)

  • Ituri

    If you will check the news today, there is a YouTube video going hot atm on the scanners and a confrontation with them. A man agreed to be searched, but said he would have the screener arrested if they touched his “junk,” to which the TSA has now responded with a *$10,000 fine AND a civil suit* against the man… not for the common sense “don’t molest me” comment about his junk, but for FAILING TO FINISH SCREENING.

    Apparently, a person cannot get into security, decide its too much for them to tolerate, and refuse AND LEAVE without gaining flight access, without a gigantic fine and a lawsuit against them. How is this legal? You can’t even leave the airport/situation. They WILL finish molesting you (or your children/family), and you CANNOT say “no” without the threat of financial ruin and a criminal record. This is absurd!

  • Bert Bogash

    I believe that the chief lobbyist for these scanners is ex-homeland security head, Michael Chertoff. It seems as though these things were rushed into service as part of a huge business deal for the company Chertoff represents.

  • Eliza

    Along with the sheer numbers. how many would you need for the NYC airports alone would be interesting. Dogs can only work on average 5-7 years. Dogs need handlers which unfortunately we cannot get at the 12-15 bucks an hour we pay tsa agents. Dogs have had false positives and drug dealers have been getting around drug dogs for the decades now I can’t imagine they won’t come up with ways to get around explosive sniffing canines either.

    it’s all a farce.

  • Stephen – NYC

    @MidMom8949, the odds are that the dogs would be bathed at least once a week, if not more often, and as a result, their likelihood of causing a reaction to a dog-allergic person, would be greatly reduced. So I would be all for it.
    Now, cats as detectors, well, then we’d have a problem. ;)

  • Dr Who

    These scanners and pat downs serve one purpose. To condition Americans for this type of thing everywhere we go. Like East Germany “Papers Please”. This is just an allusion of safety. Truth is you can’t make anything 100% safe.

  • Edcost

    I find it unacceptable that with the cost of the body scanner, it is incapable of picking up certain powder explosives. The bomb sniffing dog is more effective?? What am I missing here? Why not just have Cujo smell your crotch instead of having your privates peered at by some pervert alone with a monitor looking at nudes all day. Another thing….I’m not a techi person at all, but I’m going to state the obvious, which is the easiest and most effective. Why not KNOW who is boarding the aircraft. Shouldn’t those little passport bar codes that get scanned have some detailed info about the person boarding. Say.. they’re occupation and criminal record for starters? If an electronic system for background checks on each passenger is in place, wouldn’t it be more efficient and less aggravating for everyone not to scan every housewife and retiree. Think about it…..how many people are ligitimate travelers. Mostly everyone. If a background check doesn’t clear or is questionable, then put them through scanners and feel ups. I guess having sophisticated background checks at the airport is too easy. Maybe I’m watching too many James Bond Films.

  • Susan

    I went through the scanner and then was subjected to a humiliating pat-down, actaully a sanctioned sexual assault. If the scanners were all the TSA says they are, why did the agent have to touch my vagina three times? Put her hand under my bra? Put her hand sideways between the cheeks of my butt?

    Either we’ve got gratituous sexual assault or the machines aren’t effective. What’s the answer? TSA? Anyone?

    We’ve got to stand up to this invasion of privacy. I urge everyone to allow ample time to file sexual assault claims with a police officer against the individual screeners. And please, if you haven’t had this happen to you or watched someone stick their hand up you mother’s/daughter’s/wife’s dress and reduce them to tears then please, don’t tell me there is nothing wrong with it. There is no way this is acceptable, nor is it any more than another bad act of security theater. This time it’s assault and I’m not taking it any mroe.

  • http://www.freedomizerradio.com Freedomizer Radio

    James Babb & George Donnelly have started a campaign to protest the Naked Body Scanners. They will be joining Freedomizer Radio (http://www.freedomizerradio.com) today November 16th to talk about November 24th, which will be “National Opt Out Day” & why everyone flying on this day should Opt Out of going through the naked body scanner.

  • http://www.tripso.com/author/ned/ Ned Levi

    I certainly support “opting-out” of going through a full body scanner, and it will be interesting to see what happens on the 24th (I’m not flying that day.).

    I’d like to see us go one step further and have everyone “opt-out” every day. It’s what I’ve done personally. I’d like to see the American flying public show some backbone and say “Enough!” I’d like to see the day come very soon that TSA will rue the day they started buying these scanners, which, because of their proposed reliance on them, will make us less safe.

    I also refuse to do my “enhanced,” “punishment” pat-down in private. I want my “grope-down” in public, where anyone there can see just how outrageous the behavior of TSA these days is.

    Sure, I want to be safe, but there’s precious little that TSA does at their security checkpoint which actually improves passenger safety and security. TSA needs to stop the “security theater” and figure out reasonable and prudent methods and procedures of actually providing safety and security. TSA needs to stop treating the American public like a bunch of criminal terrorists, yet actually carry out their responsibility.

    TSA is supposed to be working for us, not working us over.

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  • ChicagoGal

    What about the children? There are MALE TSA agents putting their hands on little girls crotches! This is an abomination! it’s legalized molestation. Please watch and listen to this testimony.

    http://www.prisonplanet.com/tsa-fondles-women-and-children-refusing-airport-naked-body-scanners.html

  • http://skyguidetimetable.com/iphone/ Michelle

    By using the airport finder in the eSkyGuide iPhone app, you can see nearby alternative locations to catch your flights that may not have the scanners yet. Just compare to lists available or call. Shows smaller airports in the area.

    Michelle
    @eSkyGuide

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  • Steve

    I really think the sheepeople should just tolerate the “pat-down”. One day the results will be in and people will start getting skin cancers and the like and of course it will be too late. I’m pretty certain we finally learned our lessons about sun exposure so why is this any different? I take the pat-down everytime. For the rest of you esp. with young kids….well you just keep sending yourselves and your kids through that scanner. Think back when you were 5 or so. Really…does your commonsense tell you any additional radiation produced by a machine to your body is okay esp. if your 5 years old!? Will you know when a machine malfunctions and delivers a high accidental dose of radiation to your children and you? Probably not but your kids might find out in early adulthood when skin cancers start poping up or something worse. No way to prove it was an airport scanner that caused the cancer. They will be told they probably got skin cancer from the sun. Commonsense must prevail. Don’t be the governments human gunipigs. http://bodyscannertruth.com/?p=1275

  • Lilian Nawar

    I had a skin allergy  30 years ago that went dormant more than 25 years. I was exposed to the airport x rays in July 2011 and started scratching my skin, I was exposed to the same machine during a trip in October 2011 and the following day, I had my hands getting very hot (this used to be what I feel when the eczema kicks in. Returning from my trip in October 2011, I was exposed a third time and before I leave the airport, my left feet has a big red patch of rash on sides, my hands continue to have hot flashes. This is how the federal government is eventually causing the American public health problems. I am expecting in a matter of few years a lot of health issues will be exposed. Do not believe that it is safe to go through these machines. 

  • College Student

    Do you know of anyone else how has similar issues with the full body scanners? 

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  • Anonymous

    I was exposed to the same machine during a trip in October 2011 and the following day, I had my hands getting very hot (this used to be what I feel when the eczema kicks in. Returning from my trip in October 2011, I was exposed a third time and before I leave the airport, my left feet has a big red patch of rash on sides, my hands continue to have hot flashes. This is how the federal government is eventually causing the American public health problems. I am expecting in a matter of few years a lot of health issues will be exposed. Do not believe that it is safe to go through these machines…………………….

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