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Are Full-body Airport Scanners Dangerous?

A recent report cast doubt on the safety of airport scanners. So we got a top radiologist to give us...

I had just hoisted the last of my overstuffed carry-on luggage onto the belt at Newark International Airport Security last June when one of the officers gave me the wave that it was OK to go through the scanner. I walked on through like I usually do at the regional airport that my family and I typically fly from. “You can’t do that,” she shouted. “You need to get scanned.” Within seconds, I was lifting my hands over my head. It was my first full-body airport scan.

At first, I assumed I was just randomly picked. But, nope, all passengers (except, gratefully, the kids) got scanned -- an increasingly common practice. With only about 45 minutes until my flight took off, I didn’t have any time to dwell on what happened. In fact, I pretty much forgot about it until I got home and saw a report saying that the radiation from these types of scanners could penetrate your skin. And that got me wondering about the millions of flight attendants, pilots, airport employees and business travelers who frequently have to pass through the security check. How safe are these scans?

For answers, I called the organization that’s most in the know about the health effects of radiation, the American College of Radiology. From there, I was directed to Mahadevappa Mahesh, associate professor of radiology and medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

“Are airport scanners unsafe?” I asked Mahesh.

“No,” he answered reassuringly, explaining that there are two types of scanners. Mahesh told me that millimeter wave scanners (see a picture of them here) use radio waves -- similar to those used by a cell phone -- to generate an image. Since I have no problem spending hours on my iPhone, I shouldn’t be worried about a quickie scan. On the other hand, he says backscatter scanners do use low-intensity X-rays to take an image within two to five seconds.

“I think I got a backscatter scan,” I told Dr. Mahesh. “Should I be worried?”

“Where did you fly to?” he asked me.

“Las Vegas,” I replied.

“Well, that trip on the airplane exposes you to 40 to 100 times more radiation than the scan itself.”

“Ever had a chest X-ray?” he continued.

“No,” I answered. “Well, if you ever do, you’ll be exposed to 1,000 to 2,000 times the radiation level than a backscatter airport scan.”

Well, I get the picture. Although I learned that you can opt for a pat-down rather than a scan at airports, I’ll stick with the scan. In the scheme of all the airport hassles -- flight delays, inconvenient parking, baggage fees -- it’s actually not that big of a deal.

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