We will get cancer, and police academy dropouts will see us naked

The machine can actually see through purple rectangles: I put those there for your own safety.
The machine can actually see through purple rectangles: I put those there for your own safety.Courtesy TSA
That headline would likely have been true for most of us anyway, but the new security measures at some airports practically guarantee it.

Y’all remember the new airport scanners that would allow airport security staff to see through our clothes and hair… to the pale, doughy bodies beneath? Organs that we had worked so hard to conceal from the world would be on display for everyone to see. (Not “everyone,” exactly. More like a single security agent.)

We were assured, though, that despite the unveiling of our hidden third, fourth, and fifth nipples, the process was perfectly safe, and would save us from the pat-downs that could subject our vestigial tails and webbed armpits to crude manhandling.

However, it seems that some doctors aren’t so sure that the process is as safe as has been claimed.

The machines work by bathing your body in high frequency radio waves, which penetrate your clothes, but not your body. Depending on your outlook, y’all might be thinking, “Oh, radio waves. Like… for the radio. A little AM/FM never hurt no one.” And, not counting your grammar, you’d be correct. But another equally correct person might think, “Oh, radio waves. Like… in my microwave. If I lived in a microwave oven, I’d probably die.”

These waves shouldn’t do anything to you. Mostly they’re happy just bouncing around, maybe heating things up a little, maybe carrying some talk radio, maybe doing both. The more dangerous electromagnetic radiation (remember, radio waves are a type of electromagnetic radiation) are further up the scale—gamma rays and x-rays are higher energy and have a shorter wavelength, and they can pass through you just fine, and mess things up on their way through.

However, some scientists think that these radio waves are concentrated on and in the skin, especially where clothes do not protect it. (I’m not certain why this is. Maybe because it can penetrate a little bit, so instead of totally bouncing off the body, or being distributed throughout the tissue, it’s all ending up in the skin? I wouldn’t write that on a test, though.) The upshot is that, according to some doctors at least, the dose of radiation received from these machines could be as much as 20 times higher than the official estimates.

What’s more, some research has shown that this type of radiation may, in fact, be harmful. The reason things like x-rays are potentially dangerous is that they have enough energy that they can sort of knock apart some of the molecules in your body. That’s not a big deal, unless one of the molecules that gets changed is in your DNA. When DNA is altered or damaged, there’s a chance that it could start producing cancer cells. That kind of radiation is said to be “ionizing.” The radiation used by the scanners is supposed to be non-ionizing, but, nonetheless, there are models showing how they could “rip apart DNA.” The effect hasn’t been demonstrated experimentally, but, if it’s true, it might mean that the scanners could contribute to skin cancer risk.

There are a lot of “may”s and “potentially”s in the story, so it’s probably not something to lose a lot of sleep over. (Despite the guarantee I put in the first sentence of this post.) Unless you do lots of traveling through airports that use these devices (which, I should stress, are not the same as the metal detectors we all walk through at the airport), your greater concern should probably be imaging technology that makes you look like a surprised, naked ghost.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Bryan Dixon(Radiation Biologist)'s picture
Bryan Dixon(Radiation Biologist) says:

Get real.
Why worry about such a small risk?

The unavoidable cosmic radiation exposure during the flight will be many times more riskier than the scan.

. Your normal lifetime risk of developing a lethal cancer is at least 1 in 2. An additional risk of about 1 in a million is of no concern.

3. The older you are at exposure, significantly reduces the chance of this trivial additional risk being realised.

posted on Thu, 07/01/2010 - 8:53am
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

And don't forget about unavoidable banana radiation! I say "unavoidable," because everyone wants a banana sometime.

(I know, I know, that's not super relevant, but I just learned about the "banana equivalent dose," and I've been trying to work it into a post.)

As for "get real," I'd say I just got served, except, you know, that the line "It’s probably not something to lose a lot of sleep over" is already in the post. Oh snap?

That's a good point about absorbing cosmic radiation during air travel. I hadn't thought about that.

It's maybe an interesting point for discussion (if folks are interested). Assuming that the scanners do expose you to a tiny about of potentially harmful radiation (and they may not), should that be accepted as part of the necessary health-risks of flying? Does it matter that the danger they might pose is probably smaller than the already very small danger posed by cosmic radiation? Is it something that's even worth considering?

posted on Thu, 07/01/2010 - 9:45am
Shana's picture
Shana says:

I guess to me it depends on the true level of risk. I guess a little radiation is a-ok if it prevents my plane from being blown up by a terrorist. But I don't want to survive just to get nasty face cancer either.

This thing reminds me of that machine on the third? floor--the one that people used to have in shoe stores that bombarded them with tons of radiation so that they could x-ray their feet?

posted on Thu, 07/01/2010 - 10:06am

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