Radiated at the Airport


Holiday flyers take note: The federal Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has been quietly removing its admittedly cancer-causing full-body X-ray scanners known as “backscatter” machines from seven large US airports. About 280 are still in use at about 40 airports.

Public opposition and criticism from health scientists, the ACLU and Congress have pressured the TSA to either get rid of the machines or make them less invasive. The X-ray systems are being replaced with “millimeter-wave” technology — machines that use radio waves similar to cell phones — at Los Angeles International, Chicago O’Hare, Orlando, Logan International in Boston, and Kennedy and LaGuardia in New York City.

Jay Stanley with the American Civil Liberties Union told the Associated Press that the scanners “continue to be surrounded by health questions.” The ACLU’s gripe with the machines is that the X-ray images of passengers’ naked bodies are an invasive assault on privacy. The millimeter wave machines produce a stock image with software that alerts the TSA to any potential weapons or explosives.

Other critics raised health questions, especially regarding children, infants, fetuses and pregnant women, all of whom are more vulnerable to radiation than the “”Reference Man” used often to quantify radiation risk. In December 2010, routine maintenance of the machines showed they were emitting more than 10 times the radiation expected. The TSA said then that the results were due to a mathematical error and that all the machines are safe.

Michael Grabell in the October Mother Jones reports, as I noted last year in these pages, that prominent scientists have accused the TSA of “unnecessarily endangering the public” because of the availability of the alternative (and even cheaper) millimeter wave technology.

“Why would we want to put ourselves in this uncertain situation where potentially we’re going to have some cancer cases?” David Brenner, the director of Columbia University’s Center for Radiological Research said to ProPublica last year.

Prominent Scientists Raising Alarms

Scientists at the Univ. of California, San Francisco and Arizona State Univ. have raised profound questions — as yet unanswered by TSA or Rapiscan, the machines’ manufacturers — about the health effects of backscatter scanners which bounce X-rays off travelers’ bodies.

Dr. John Sedat, an emeritus professor in biochemistry and biophysics at UCSF co-signed a letter to the White House last year that criticized the veracity of safety tests done on the machines. He charged that “the risk of radiation emission to children and adolescents does not appear to have been fully evaluated.” Sedat’s letter also raised alarming concerns about pregnant women and fetuses.

The TSA did not say the change was the start of a complete phase-out of the scanners and is currently moving the contraptions to smaller US airports. As the safety of millimeter-wave systems has not been established, cautious passengers may still want to opt for the old fashioned “pat down.”

One year ago, the European Union took the advice of Brenner and Sedat and banned the use of X-ray body scanners in European airports. The EU opted for the precautionary ban on the X-ray machines, “In order not to risk jeopardizing citizens’ health and safety.”

The case of the backscatter X-ray machines being removed from Orlando, Florida is interesting, and recalls the adage about the squeaky wheel. The Orlando Sun reported last January that Broward County officials had repeatedly raised health and safety questions about the X-ray machines. The county wrote letters to the TSA asking its opinion of the European Union ban, and Broward Aviation Director Kent George also asked if TSA had conducted “recent studies” on the scanner and “its effects on the health/safety of the frequent traveler.”

“I think it’s potentially a real danger to the public,” Dr. Edward Dauer, head of radiology at Florida Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale, told the Orlando Sun.

The TSA did not say the limited changes were the start of a complete phase-out of the scanners, and it is currently moving the contraptions to smaller US airports. We can watch for them at say Duluth and Minneapolis.

As the safety of millimeter-wave scanners has not been well-established, cautious passengers, especially women, children and infants, may still want to opt for the old fashioned “pat down.”

John LaForge is a co-director of Nukewatch and edits its Quarterly newsletter.

Weekend Edition
October 2-4, 2015
Henry Giroux
Murder, USA: Why Politicians Have Blood on Their Hands
Mike Whitney
Putin’s Lightning War in Syria
Jennifer Loewenstein
Heading Toward a Collision: Syria, Saudi Arabia and Regional Proxy Wars
John Pilger
Wikileaks vs. the Empire: the Revolutionary Act of Telling the Truth
Gary Leupp
A Useful Prep-Sheet on Syria for Media Propagandists
Jeffrey St. Clair
Pesticides, Neoliberalism and the Politics of Acceptable Death
Lawrence Ware – Paul Buhle
Insurrectional Black Power: CLR James on Race and Class
Joshua Frank
The Need to Oppose All Foreign Intervention in Syria
Oliver Tickell
Jeremy Corbyn’s Heroic Refusal to be a Nuclear Mass Murderer
Helen Yaffe
Che’s Economist: Remembering Jorge Risquet
Mark Hand
‘Rape Rooms’: How West Virginia Women Paid Off Coal Company Debts
Yves Engler
War Crimes in the Dark: Inside Canada’s Special Forces
Arno J. Mayer
Israel: the Wages of Hubris and Violence
W. T. Whitney
Cuban Government Describes Devastating Effects of U. S. Economic Blockade
Brian Cloughley
The US-NATO Alliance Destroyed Libya, Where Next?
Karl Grossman
The Politics of Lyme Disease
Barry Lando
Syria: Obama’s Bay of Pigs?
Andre Vltchek
Southeast Asia “Forgets” About Western Terror
Jose Martinez
American Violence: Umpqua is “Routine”?
Vijay Prashad
Russian Gambit, Syrian Dilemma
Sam Smith
Why the Democrats are in Such a Mess
Uri Avnery
Nasser and Me
Andrew Levine
The Saints March In: The Donald and the Pope
Arun Gupta
The Refugee Crisis in America
Michael Welton
Junior Partner of Empire: Why Canada’s Foreign Policy Isn’t What You Think
Robert Fantina
The U.S. Elections and Verbal Vomit
Dan Glazebrook
Refugees Don’t Cause Fascism, Mr. Timmermann – You Do
Victor Grossman
Blood Moon Over Germany
Patrick Bond
Can World’s Worst Case of Inequality be Fixed by Pikettian Posturing?
Pete Dolack
Earning a Profit from Global Warming
B. R. Gowani
Was Gandhi Averse to Climax? A Psycho-Sexual Assessment of the Mahatma
Tom H. Hastings
Another Mass Murder
Anne Petermann
Activists Arrested at ArborGen GE Trees World Headquarters
Ben Debney
Zombies on a Runaway Train
Franklin Lamb
Confronting ‘Looting to Order’ and ‘Cultural Racketeering’ in Syria
Carl Finamore
Coming to San Francisco? Cra$h at My Pad
Ron Jacobs
Standing Naked: Bob Dylan and Jesus
Missy Comley Beattie
What Might Does To Right
Robert J. Burrowes
Gandhi Jayanti, Gandhi’s Dream
Raouf Halaby
A Week of Juxtapositions
Louis Proyect
Scenes from the Class Struggle in Iran
Christopher Washburn
Skeptik’s Lexicon
Charles R. Larson
Indonesia: Robbed, Raped, Abused
David Yearsley
Death Songs
Jon Hochschartner
Does Word Policing Actually Help the Left?