The New Airport Safety Issue: Radiation

Can full-body scans make you sick?
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The New Airport Safety Issue: Radiation

Can full-body scans make you sick?

-Jane Farrell

Airport body scan

We haven’t seen a grass-roots protest like this in a long time: Tens of thousands American travelers are very vocal about how much they hate the new full-body screening procedures performed by employees of the federal Transportation Security Administration as part of their effort to detect terrorists.

But in the midst of all the controversy and heated exchanges about invasion of privacy (via body x-rays) and invasion of personal space (via extensive manual pat-downs), one issue has been overlooked to some extent: How much radiation will passengers be exposed to in the full-body scan at airports? (As of now, 385 airports use the scanner, though that number is expected to increase sharply.) According to the TSA, the level of radiation is safe, while the federal Food and Drug Administration says it reached the same conclusion through its own testing as well as testing by researchers at Johns Hopkins University.

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But the Allied Pilots Association, the pilots’ union for American Airlines, has told its members to opt for the controversial full-body pat-down rather than the scan because of the frequency with which they fly. The pilots’ union at Southwest Airlines made a similar recommendation, according to the Fort Worth Star Telegram.

The radiation issue is important to flight attendants as well: A study by the California Department of Health showed that flight attendants have a 30 percent higher incidence of breast cancer than women in general, according to the Association of Flight Attendants. This might be the result of being exposed at high altitudes to “cosmic radiation” (radiation from other stars) or “solar radiation” (radiation from the sun). Passengers are also exposed to both kinds of radiation, although not for as nearly as long a time as are people who fly for a living. Not surprisingly, flight attendants aren’t eager to expose themselves further, and the alternative of a pat-down that has been described by some attendants as sexual assault isn’t appealing, either.


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