TSA under fire over whole-body scanners — radiation concerns and effectiveness

by Charlie Leocha on December 10, 2010

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is under unusual pressure concerning their operation of whole body scanners (advanced imaging devices, in TSA-speak). Members of Congress are demanding that TSA release their records regarding the radiation safety of scanners and the scientists behind development of MRI machines released a report that current airport scanners don’t work.

Radiation questions
USAToday doing research for an article about the radiation dangers and health risks of the backscatter x-ray whole body scanners were rebuffed by TSA when they asked for records of inspections and maintenance records for these giant x-ray machines.

After an intense period of published concerns about the safety of these airport x-ray machines prior to the Thanksgiving travel period, the newspaper decided to get the records from TSA about whether the machines are as safe as TSA claims. It is easy to spout platitudes about overall safety of the airport scanners, both whole-body and the larger baggage scanners found tucked away in the baggage handling systems of airports.

Travelers rely on the TSA to ensure that the full-body X-ray machines don’t deliver more than the small radiation dose necessary to see through clothing. TSA spokesman Nicholas Kimball offered this reassurance: “All radiation surveys conducted to date have found radiation emissions to be below the applicable national standard.”

Based on a 2008 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the TSA and its maintenance contractors failed in the past to detect when some X-ray machines used on baggage emitted radiation beyond what regulations allow. The report shows some machines were missing protective lead curtains or had safety features disabled by TSA employees with duct tape, paper towels and other materials.

Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general asking them to investigate the effectiveness of the TSA’s X-ray inspection program for full-body scanners.

It is about time. Since last March, this publication has been alerting passengers and workers about possible dangers. Not only are passengers, including pregnant women and children, streaming through these ill-conceived machines at risk, TSA workers are facing even more danger. I predict that a major class action suit by TSA workers against the government for radiation poisoning is only a matter of time.

Effectiveness questions
Most Americans according to polls seem to feel that whole body scanners are fine if they help prevent terrorist acts. But what would they feel about going through this entire rigmarole if the machines were proved ineffective. That may be the case.

The two scientists most responsible for the development magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines used in hospitals have reached the conclusion that these currently deployed contraptions are not effective at preventing terrorists from carrying explosives aboard aircraft.

Basically, Leon Kaufman and Joseph W. Carlson, described as the “scientific genius” behind the MRIs, claim that TSA and the manufactureres, in order to show effectiveness, have biased the studies and left out known limitations of the machines.

Mr. Kaufman and Mr. Carlson showed less restraint in a peer-reviewed article posted online Nov. 26 by The Journal of Transportation Security. They created a computer model to simulate scanner operation and conclude an Islamic terrorist could easily sneak a large quantity of explosives past the device. “It is very likely that a large (15-20 cm in diameter), irregularly-shaped, cm-thick pancake with beveled edges, taped to the abdomen, would be invisible to this technology, ironically, because of its large volume, since it is easily confused with normal anatomy,” the study explains.

The researchers pointed out that the manufacturers of airport scanners positioned contraband like guns, knives and drugs in unnatural ways to conceal the limitations of their device. For example, the simulated drugs are always packed into tight rectangles that show up distinctly on the machine. TSA employees would have a far more difficult time spotting less tidy terrorists. “The eye is a good signal averager at certain spatial frequencies, but it is doubtful that an operator can be trained to detect these differences unless the material is hard-edged, not too large and regular shaped,” Mr. Kaufman and Mr. Carlson wrote.

Theirs is not the only such study. Last March the government’s own GAO reported that it was “unclear” whether airport scanners would have detected Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s botched Christmas Day underwear bombing attempt.

As TSA begins to touch more and more Americans in ways that they feel “ain’t right,” and more whole body scanners are deployed, the concerns of the public will increase. Even TSA officials admit that less that 10 percent of the flying public have faced a whole body scanner or an enhanced pat-down and there is already an uproar.

Add to that, radiation questions that are sure to emerge from these latest investigations and scientific evidence that the whole body scanner billion-dollar contraptions can’t spot a reasonably well-hidden bomb and TSA is going to have a growing problem.

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  • Matthew in NYC

    I would be much happier with the x-ray machines at the airports if the machines, their operators and the work place were under the regulatory authority of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. However, that would add significant cost, including having to pay a licensed radiographer more than TSA workers. Without a regulatory watchdog with big teeth breathing down their necks, there is no incentive to keep up the safety protocols. The nuclear industry has spent the last thirty years developing a safety in depth culture that is reinforced by the NRC, why on earth should we then bypass that model and give radiation equipment to minimum wage, minimally trained workers?

  • Hapgood

    The TSA has always been under fire. Even though most Americans are cowering sheep who want to believe that the circus of shoes, quart baggies, and now radiation will keep them safe from terrorists, there have always been a few vocal opponents who refuse to accept it. The fire is perhaps just a bit thicker these days, commensurate with the increased level of intrusion that Generalissimo Pistole assures us is a necessary response to current threats.

    But the TSA’s leadership has known since Day 1 that nearly all of those bullets can be harmlessly deflected with an impenetrable shield of fear and lies. And those few that penetrate the shield can be ignored. Indeed, every unpatriotic word uttered in opposition to the TSA merely validates and strengthens their agency. For if their layers of security inconvenience travelers enough to make a few of them whine and grumble, they surely must be causing even more difficulty for those who seek to kill Americans.

    Like all the other concerns people have had about TSA security measures, questions about radiation, privacy, and effectiveness will ultimately bead up and roll off like water on a duck. The key to the TSA’s effectiveness is the secrecy and opacity of everything they do. The actual data about radiation levels, operating procedures, and maintenance procedures is all secret, so any spurious statements by self-proclaimed “scientists” and “experts” is merely uninformed speculation that should be disregarded. The only authoritative information comes from the TSA itself: “The scanners are completely safe and highly effective. Trust us.”

    Unfortunately, there will always be people who lack the proper unquestioning trust to which any entity with “security” in their name is inherently entitled. That’s why the TSA has a full-time propaganda department working to neutralize that threat.

  • baasbaas

    I fail to understand this intensive security (???) within country. Homegrown terrorists do not need to fly from one city to another to do whatever damage they intend. Those responsible for 9/11 came from out of country! Seems to me this is a colossal waste of money…our tax money. Or maybe it is a method of “creating jobs!”

  • Robb Gordon

    Matthew makes the point I have been arguing. These machines could be as “safe” as advertised, but that assumes that the operators are qualified. How much training have the TSA officers had? What kind of test did they have to pass?

  • Dean

    @Matthew, Your confidence in another bureaucracy is admirable but likely unwise. I observed too much in my time in the Navy handling nuclear weapons to put much faith in NRC or DOE.
    @Hapgood, lol, I had to wipe my keyboard off from the excess sarcasm dripping off my screen.
    @Baasbaas, you do realize, of course, that though the 9/11 perpetrators came from outside this country originally, they boarded their flights on that day within the US (Boston, Newark and DC). While it would be great to keep all such out of our country, this is next to impossible in our open society. I am not defending the TSA’s methods, just that we do need some way to protect domestic as well as international travelers.

  • sharp914

    TSA and the goverment say the body scan has minimal radiation. That is not true. If you go thru it many times the radiation can and will build over time. You will then have radiation sickness and that will cause harm to your health.

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  • mcadamr

    As a current student graduating in May from a radiologic technology school, I have more of an understanding of the way x-rays work. Yes, it is a lower dose than what you receive in 2 minutes of flight, yes it is not enough to harm you, but, these measurements are of full body penetrating radiation. People have to realize that the radiation emitted from these machines is only absorbed into the skin and immediately underlying soft tissue. Therefore, more of a dose is being applied to this part of the body than what was originally thought. Over time, for some frequent travelers, this radiation can mess up the skin’s cells enough that it significantly increases the risk of cancer, or radiation burns. Though, I am not worried nearly as much about frequent fliers as I am about the TSA workers who have to stand next to and operate these machines daily. They are clearly not properly trained in radiation safety, and aren’t given dosimetry badges to measure their exposure to radiation. Just give it some time and there will be cases popping up all over the place of TSA workers getting skin cancer, brain tumors, or having children with some form of deficiency. In the hospital setting, we use lead aprons, lead lined walls, dosimeter badges, as short of an exposure as possible, and if we are doing a portable x-ray, we stand as far away from the machine as possible. These are all ways to protect yourself and patients from radiation. Hopefully the TSA realizes soon that their employees need some form of shielding.

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