The European Union issued a ruling this week that bans X-ray body scanners in all European airports. According to the European Commission, the agency charged with enforcing the ruling across the EU’s 27 member nations, the prohibition is necessary “in order not to risk jeopardizing citizens’ health and safety.”
TAP – Once you read the text, I’m not sure it says exactly that, but it’s worth reading the bulletin to be sure of the legal approach being taken by airports if you wish to ask for an opt-out. They can challenge you by asking you why you are requesting an opt-out. If your answer is not carefully thought through, the reason you give may not be sufficient to allow you an opt-out. I add a suggestion at the end.
X-ray body scanners, which use “backscatter” ionized radiation technology, emit enough radiation to theoretically damage DNA and cause cancer. While the level of radiation is extremely low, some studies have found that over time a small number of cancer cases could result from scanning millions of people a year. Statistically the incidence is minuscule, but it’s a possibility nonetheless.
Instead of X-ray scanners, European airports will use millimeter-wave scanners that utilize low-energy radio waves. So far, no credible studies have linked radio wave exposure to cancer.
In the U.S., the TSA uses both types of scanners: 250 X-ray scanners and 264 millimeter wave scanners. Controversy surrounding use of the scanners has focused mainly on privacy concerns, and it would seem that the potential health risks of the technology have been largely downplayed in the interest of security.
In response to the EU ruling, the TSA offered a different flavor of statistics showing that since January 2010, more than 300 dangerous or illegal items have been found on passengers as a direct result of using X-ray body scanners.
Earlier this month, a PBS Newshour/ProPublica report accused various agencies within the U.S. government of glossing over cancer risks when the scanners were rolled out. According to the report, radiation experts convened by the Food and Drug Administration started raising concerns over use of the technology in 1998 when only 20 machines were in operation throughout the entire country. Quoting from the report:
One after another, the experts convened by the Food and Drug Administration raised questions about the machine because it violated a longstanding principle in radiation safety — that humans shouldn’t be X-rayed unless there is a medical benefit.
But, of course, that was before 9/11. Deployment of scanners increased radically after the attacks, and full-body versions were installed en masse after the failed underwear bombing in 2009.
The FDA took issue with the ProPublica report and responded last week with a letter claiming that the cancer risk from X-ray scanners is roughly 1 in 400 million, in stark contrast to ProPublica’s assertion that research suggests anywhere from six to 100 Americans a year could develop cancer from use of the machines.
The TSA plans to deploy 1,275 backscatter and millimeter-wave scanners covering more than half its security lanes by the end of 2012 and 1,800 covering nearly all the lanes by 2014.