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Agency Looks At Risks Of Airport Body Scanners

February 6, 2010

An recent inter-agency report states that air passengers should be made aware of the health risks of airport body screenings and governments need to explain any decision to expose the public to higher levels of cancer-causing radiation.

The Inter-Agency Committee on Radiation Safety’s report said pregnant women and children should not be subject to scanning, even though the radiation dose from body scanners is “extremely small.”

Bloomberg recently reported that it will not be possible to obtain a more accurate assessment about health risks of the screening until governments decide whether all passengers will be systematically scanned or randomly selected. 

The report also said that governments must justify the additional risk posed to passengers, and should consider “other techniques to achieve the same end without the use of ionizing radiation.”

President Barack Obama pledged $734 million to deploy airport scanners that use x-rays and other technology to detect explosives, guns and other contraband.

Other countries, including the U.S., have been deploying more scanners at airports after the attempted bombing on Christmas Day of a Detroit-bound Northwest airline flight.

“There is little doubt that the doses from the backscatter x-ray systems being proposed for airport security purposes are very low,” Health Protection Agency doctor Michael Clark told Bloomberg News. “The issue raised by the report is that even though doses from the systems are very low, they feel there is still a need for countries to justify exposures.”

The report says that a backscatter x-ray is a machine that can produce a three dimensional image of people by scanning them for as long as 8 seconds.  Some countries, including Germany, are concerned about privacy issues because it yields images of the naked body.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protections Agency, frequent exposure to low doses of radiation can lead to cancer and birth defects.

The report said that most of the scanners deliver less radiation than a passenger is likely to receive from cosmic rays while airborne.  Passengers that were scanned may absorb from 0.1 to 5 microsieverts of radiation, compared with 5 microsieverts on a flight from Dublin to Paris and 30 microsieverts between Frankfurt and Bangkok.  A sievert is a unit of measurement for radiation.

European Union regulators are planning to finish their study on the effects of scanning technology on travelers’ privacy and health.  Amsterdam, Heathrow and Manchester are among the European airports that already have, or are planning to install the devices.

The U.S. transportation Security Administration ordered 150 scanners from OSI Systems Inc.’s Rapiscan unit, and will add another additional 300 imaging devices later this year.  Currently, the agency uses 40 machines that cost between $130,000 to $170,000 each.

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