A group of scientists NOT affiliated with either the government or the company that manufactures and distributes the backscatter scanners that are now being used in an increasing number of US airports, has sent a letter of concern to Dr. John P. Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology about the safety of these scanners.
The X-ray dose from these devices has often been compared in the media to the cosmic ray exposure inherent to airplane travel or that of a chest X-ray. However, this comparison is very misleading: both the air travel cosmic ray exposure and chest X-rays have much higher X-ray energies and the health consequences are appropriately understood in terms of the whole body volume dose. In contrast, these new airport scanners are largely depositing their energy into the skin and immediately adjacent tissue, and since this is such a small fraction of body weight/vol, possibly by one to two orders of magnitude, the real dose to the skin is now high.
In addition, it appears that real independent safety data do not exist. A search, ultimately finding top FDA radiation physics staff, suggests that the relevant radiation quantity, the Flux [photons per unit area and time (because this is a scanning device)] has not been characterized. Instead an indirect test (Air Kerma) was made that emphasized the whole body exposure value, and thus it appears that the danger is low when compared to cosmic rays during airplane travel and a chest X-ray dose.
Our colleagues at UCSF, dermatologists and cancer experts, raise specific important concerns:
A) The large population of older travelers, >65 years of age, is particularly at risk from the mutagenic effects of the X-rays based on the known biology of melanocyte aging.
B) A fraction of the female population is especially sensitive to utagenesis provoking radiation leading to breast cancer. Notably, because these women, who have defects in DNA repair mechanisms, are particularly prone to cancer, X-ray mammograms are not performed on them. The dose to breast tissue beneath the skin represents a similar risk.
C) Blood (white blood cells) perfusing the skin is also at risk.
D) The population of immunocompromised individuals--HIV and cancer patients (see above) is likely to be at risk for cancer induction by the high skin dose.
E) The risk of radiation emission to children and adolescents does not appear to have been fully evaluated.
F) The policy towards pregnant women needs to be defined once the theoretical risks to the fetus are determined.
G) Because of the proximity of the testicles to skin, this tissue is at risk for sperm mutagenesis.
H) Have the effects of the radiation on the cornea and thymus been determined?
Moreover, there are a number of ‘red flags’ related to the hardware itself. Because this device can scan a human in a few seconds, the X-ray beam is very intense. Any glitch in power at any point in the hardware (or more importantly in software) that stops the device could cause an intense radiation dose to a single spot on the skin. Who will oversee problems with overall dose after repair or software problems? The TSA is already complaining about resolution limitations; who will keep the manufacturers and/or TSA from just raising the dose, an easy way to improve signal-to-noise and get
This is the technology that's supposed to be "keeping us safe."
The alternative is to be groped by TSA personnel. My experience at FLL, while not pleasant, was not as utterly humiliating as it could have been. Others' experience has differed:
We were flying from Nashville to Orlando to go to Disney for my son's birthday. My son is 9 years old. Nashville has installed the new backscatter scanners, aka "naked" scanners. Now I am not a modest person and for me myself I don't care. To be honest, I had not given it much thought. We were given no option to opt out of the scans that I could see, no signage or instructions. I later found out you can opt out and choose the pat down instead. Well, we all three went through the machine. Husband and I were fine. They scanned the kid and then informed us they had to pat him down. I asked why, they said he moved. So I am thinking run of the mill pat down, wand over his body and light touch. He is 9 years old for the love of Pete but that was not the case. Had anyone but a physician doing a necessary medical exam touched my child in the places the TSA agent put his hands, I would have filed charges. He groped the inside of his legs and touched his genitals. He put his hands around my son's neck in a choking position, felt all the way down his chest area and his buttocks. He placed his hands inside my son's pants waist band and felt around his waist. The agent was loud and intimidating even for me, a 36 year old women. He barked at him to "hold up your pants" and "spread your legs, shoulder width." All I could think was my son looked like he was being frisked and how humiliating this was for him to be stared at by everyone as they passed by us. Now, this whole scenario was out in the open, we were not given the option of privacy. My son was scared and humiliated. I am not a momma hen or a wacko and we fly regularly and have never minded the security measures needed but this was a shocking experience. Shocking enough for us to forgo air travel (which we have always loved) until these new security rules change and come closer to something akin to reason. (LINK)
Last week, one of my flying partners (Captain with Skywest) was going through security at DEN with his 18 year daughter. As his daughter approached the detector, the TSO working the NoS said on his headset, "heads up, got a cutie for you." He then confronted the TSA clerk with what he said and that neither of us are going through the NoS. The TSA clerk said you must have misunderstood me. (LINK)
Some lady came over and grabbed my arm and pulled me into another area and I pulled away from her and I said, “Woah, what’s going on here,” and she said, "If you opt out I have to give you a full patdown.”
They put me in this little area which is directly after the body scanner and the WTMD and so everyone who goes through that has to go around this area that I’m in. I’m just standing there and this lady is screaming at me about the procedures, and I said "Can I talk to your boss?”
And so I’m sitting there and she brings out her manager and the first thing she says to her manager is, "This girl has all kinds of opinions about how we’re doing our job wrong."
And that’s how she introduces the situation. I try to ask a question and I don’t get 30 seconds into talking with this woman and she runs away and she comes back with a dozen cops. I sat there and counted them. I asked at one point if I could grab my camera and they would not let me touch my stuff.
I’m just sitting there…and I’m trying to talk to the one officer and anytime I ask him a question that he did not have an answer to, he would get really upset and start yelling at me some more, and then they cuffed me in the chair. And then the original TSA lady who was going to give me the patdown just kind of quietly, so no one else can hear, she says, “I can tell you one thing,” and then she rips my boarding pass in half. (LINK)
Perhaps it's time to just stop flying until we are treated like human beings again. Wednesday, November 24 is opt-out day. If everyone who travels through an airport that day opts out of radiation exposure being administered by a government flack, and is instead treated like a prison inmate, it might wake us up to what we've lost in this pursuit of the illusion (not the reality) of "safety".
Another account from someone who opted for "alternate screening":
After removing my shoes and making my way toward the metal detector, the person in front of me in line was pulled out to go through the backscatter machine. After asking what it was and being told, he opted out. This left the machine free, and before I could go through the metal detector, I was pulled out of line to go through the backscatter machine. When asked, I half-chuckled and said, "I don't think so." At this point, I was informed that I would be subject to a pat down, and I waited for another agent.
A male agent (it was a female who had directed me to the backscatter machine in the first place), came and waited for me to get my bags and then directed me over to the far corner of the area for screening. After setting my things on a table, he turned to me and began to explain that he was going to do a "standard" pat down. (I thought to myself, "great, not one of those gropings like I've been reading about".) After he described, the pat down, I realized that he intended to touch my groin. After he finished his description but before he started the pat down, I looked him straight in the eye and said, "if you touch my junk, I'll have you arrested." He, a bit taken aback, informed me that he would have to involve his supervisor because of my comment.
We both stood there for no more than probably two minutes before a female TSA agent (apparently, the supervisor) arrived. She described to me that because I had opted out of the backscatter screening, I would now be patted down, and that involved running hands up the inside of my legs until they felt my groin. I stated that I would not allow myself to be subject to a molestation as a condition of getting on my flight. The supervisor informed me that it was a standard administrative security check and that they were authorized to do it. I repeated that I felt what they were doing was a sexual assault, and that if they were anyone but the government, the act would be illegal. I believe that I was then informed that if I did not submit to the inspection, I would not be getting on my flight. I again stated that I thought the search was illegal. I told her that I would be willing to submit to a walk through the metal detector as over 80% of the rest of the people were doing, but I would not be groped. The supervisor, then offered to go get her supervisor.
I took a seat in a tiny metal chair next to the table with my belongings and waited. While waiting, I asked the original agent (who was supposed to do the pat down) if he had many people opt out to which he replied, none (or almost none, I don't remember exactly). He said that I gave up a lot of rights when I bought my ticket. I replied that the government took them away after September 11th. There was silence until the next supervisor arrived. A few minutes later, the female agent/supervisor arrived with a man in a suit (not a uniform). He gave me a business card identifying him as David Silva, Transportation Security Manager, San Diego International Airport. At this point, more TSA agents as well as what I assume was a local police officer arrived on the scene and surrounded the area where I was being detained. The female supervisor explained the situation to Mr. Silva. After some quick back and forth (that I didn't understand/hear), I could overhear Mr. Silva say something to the effect of, "then escort him from the airport." I again offered to submit to the metal detector, and my father-in-law, who was near by also tried to plead for some reasonableness on the TSA's part.
Read more here.
And just how do you think children make sense of the lessons they're told about not to let strangers touch them when if they travel with their parents they're put through this:
This is not about safety. I'm not sure what it is, but it isn't about safety. The chance of being a victim of in-flight terrorism is one in 10,408,947. As Ronald Bailey pointed out in Reason magazine in 2006:
Your lifetime odds of dying of a particular cause are calculated by dividing the one-year odds by the life expectancy of a person born in that year. For example, in 2003 about 45,000 Americans died in motor accidents out of population of 291,000,000. So, according to the National Safety Council this means your one-year odds of dying in a car accident is about one out of 6500. Therefore your lifetime probability (6500 ÷ 78 years life expectancy) of dying in a motor accident are about one in 83.
What about your chances of dying in an airplane crash? A one-year risk of one in 400,000 and one in 5,000 lifetime risk. What about walking across the street? A one-year risk of one in 48,500 and a lifetime risk of one in 625. Drowning? A one-year risk of one in 88,000 and a one in 1100 lifetime risk. In a fire? About the same risk as drowning. Murder? A one-year risk of one in 16,500 and a lifetime risk of one in 210. What about falling? Essentially the same as being murdered. And the proverbial being struck by lightning? A one-year risk of one in 6.2 million and a lifetime risk of one in 80,000. And what is the risk that you will die of a catastrophic asteroid strike? In 1994, astronomers calculated that the chance was one in 20,000. However, as they've gathered more data on the orbits of near earth objects, the lifetime risk has been reduced to one in 200,000 or more.
So how do these common risks compare to your risk of dying in a terrorist attack? To try to calculate those odds realistically, Michael Rothschild, a former business professor at the University of Wisconsin, worked out a couple of plausible scenarios. For example, he figured that if terrorists were to destroy entirely one of America's 40,000 shopping malls per week, your chances of being there at the wrong time would be about one in one million or more. Rothschild also estimated that if terrorists hijacked and crashed one of America's 18,000 commercial flights per week that your chance of being on the crashed plane would be one in 135,000.
Even if terrorists were able to pull off one attack per year on the scale of the 9/11 atrocity, that would mean your one-year risk would be one in 100,000 and your lifetime risk would be about one in 1300. (300,000,000 ÷ 3,000 = 100,000 ÷ 78 years = 1282) In other words, your risk of dying in a plausible terrorist attack is much lower than your risk of dying in a car accident, by walking across the street, by drowning, in a fire, by falling, or by being murdered.
So why are we going through this?
The Israelis have had tight security at that country's airports for decades. Mr. Brilliant used to work for an Israeli company and went there twice. He was asked why he was there, what he was doing, when he was leaving, everyone he was supposed to have contact with. They don't do virtual strip searches or grope women's breasts or men's scrotal sacs in the name of security. And Israeli security experts regard the scanners as a waste of money:
"I don't know why everybody is running to buy these expensive and useless machines. I can overcome the body scanners with enough explosives to bring down a Boeing 747," Rafi Sela told parliamentarians probing the state of aviation safety in Canada.
"That's why we haven't put them in our airport," Sela said, referring to Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion International Airport, which has some of the toughest security in the world.
Sela, former chief security officer of the Israel Airport Authority and a 30-year veteran in airport security and defence technology, helped design the security at Ben Gurion.
Sela testified it makes more sense to create a "trusted traveller" system so pre-approved low-risk passengers can move through an expedited screening process. That would leave more resources in the screening areas, where automatic sniffing technology would detect any explosive residue on a person or their baggage.
Behavioural profiling also must be used instead of random checks, he said.
Scanners are expensive and dangerous. Groping is humiliating. Both turn every single traveler at an American airport into a suspected criminal. The professionalism of TSA employees varies even within the same airport. This is not security, this is performance art.
Again, I ask: Why are we putting ourselves through this?