Thirteen years ago, a panel of radiation safety experts convened by the Food and Drug Administration gathered at a hotel in Maryland to test a new device – the Secure 1000 – that could detect hidden weapons and contraband by beaming X-rays at people to see beneath their clothing.
The experts agreed this device shouldn’t be in general use as it violated the longstanding principle in radiation safety that humans shouldn’t be X-rayed unless there is a medical benefit. The machine’s inventor assured the group that since only 20 machines were currently in use, it probably wouldn’t see widespread use anytime soon.
Flash forward to today as the United States begins deploying these X-ray body scanners and passing millions of airline passengers through them around the country, despite having a safer alternative that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) says is also highly effective.
The final call to deploy the X-ray machines was made not by the FDA, which regulates drugs and medical devices, but by the Transportation Safety Administration, an agency whose main mission is to prevent terrorist attacks.
It’s interesting to note that our use of these devices parts company with European countries and others that have concluded that such widespread use of low-level radiation poses an unacceptable health risk.
Research suggests that anywhere from six to 100 U.S. airline passengers each year could get cancer from these machines.
Currently approximately 250 X-ray scanners are being used in U.S. airports, along with 264 body scanners that use a different technology, a type of low-energy radio waves known as millimeter waves.TSA plans to have one or the other of these operating at nearly every security lane in America by 2014.
It seems these new x-ray machines have escaped the regulatory scrutiny of the FDA because they’re not for medical use. And the TSA skipped a public comment period required before deploying the scanners, saying it relied on a small body of unpublished research to insist the machines were safe, ignoring contrary opinions from U.S. and European authorities that recommended precautions, especially for pregnant women.
Some TSA screeners are concerned about their own radiation exposure from the backscatters, but the TSA hasn’t allowed them to wear badges that could measure it, said Milly Rodriguez, health and safety specialist for the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents TSA officers.
To be sure, it’s important for TSA to be able to detect and thwart any potential terrorist threats before they can occur. But with lobbyists and politicians wrapped around the use of such controversial and possibly harmful devices on a widespread scale, it seems that the public’s health is taking a back seat once again. It’s something to think about the next time you pull your car out of your garage to head to the airport. Can the public refuse to use these machines? Certainly, but the hassle that will ensue from that won’t be worth it to many.
The answer isn’t easy, but there has to be an alternative we all can live with.