More Backlash Over TSA's Body Scanners

More pilots and now a group of university scientists are protesting a TSA security directive that will soon make full body scanners the primary method of passenger screening at airports across the United States.

If my constant haranguing about civil liberties and the spurious science behind full body scanners hasn't swayed you, maybe this warning from four doctors from the University of California - San Francisco (UCSF) that the backscatter technology employed by many full body scanners may be very hazardous to your health will be a bit more convincing.

Unlike other scanners, these new devices operate at relatively low beam energies (28keV). The majority of their energy is delivered to the skin and the underlying tissue. Thus, while the dose would be safe if it were distributed throughout the volume of the entire body, the dose to the skin may be dangerously high.

The X-ray dose from these devices has often been compared in the media to the cosmic ray exposure inherent to airplane travel or that of a chest X-ray. However, this comparison is very misleading: both the air travel cosmic ray exposure and chest Xrays have much higher X-ray energies and the health consequences are appropriately understood in terms of the whole body volume dose. In contrast, these new airport scanners are largely depositing their energy into the skin and immediately adjacent tissue, and since this is such a small fraction of body weight/vol, possibly by one to two orders of magnitude, the real dose to the skin is now high.

In addition, it appears that real independent safety data do not exist. A search, ultimately finding top FDA radiation physics staff, suggests that the relevant radiation quantity, the Flux [photons per unit area and time (because this is a scanning device)] has not been characterized. Instead an indirect test (Air Kerma) was made that emphasized the whole body exposure value, and thus it appears that the danger is low when compared to cosmic rays during airplane travel and a chest X-ray dose.

Check out their full report here

The question comes down to this: is it better to rush the implementation of these costly machines because they might provide marginal security benefits or should we fully test the health effects and viability of this technology before totally altering our airport security paradigm in America? I think the answer is obviously the latter choice.

And it's not just medical doctors and a small segment of disgruntled pilots that are now protesting full body scanners: US Airways pilots were advised by their union today to avoid backscatter and millimeter wave screenings (after AA's pilot union did the same last week) and Australian pilots are also considering a boycott as full body scanners are rolled out in Australia beginning in early 2011.

These groups echo the concerns expressed by the UCSF doctors over the short and long-term health ramifications of this new scanning technology.

So whether we look at it from a Constitutional angle (full body scanners violate the Fourth Amendment's assurance against unreasonable searches and seizures), a technological angle (full body scanners are untested in an operational setting and may not be able to pick up the very explosive materials that they are purported to protect us against), or a health angle (full body scanners, particularly the backscatter variant, may be critically detrimental even in small doses to your health), we are left with the patently obvious conclusion that it would be prudent to take a step back and examine more closely the TSA's reactionary decision to deploy this new technology before proceeding further.


Sean November 10, 2010 at 10:56 am

The TSA posted a response to the concerns raised in the letter you linked. It can be found here:

Let's just say, it's less that convincing. Basically they rely on manufactures to notify the public of any possible malfunctions that could result in increased radiation exposure.

Further the TSA is responsible for inspecting the machines ANNUALLY, or after an maintenance event that could result in increased radiation exposure. Maybe it's just me, but i don't trust the same TSA that accidentally leaked all of its screening procedures to perform such checks on equipment that produces ionizing radiation.

I've only been selected for the Backscatter X-Ray machine once so far, and while I don't have a problem with the millimeter wave variety of the nude-o-scope, given the "choice" between Backscatter X-Rays and the "enhanced" pat down, I'll have to choose the pat down every time.

PeaceDove November 10, 2010 at 06:06 pm

Ending the TSA Insanity thru Boycott The Congress and Senate are doing nothing to end this trespass on our Constitutional rights. The only way we can get them to listen is to strike back at them through their financiers. As it appears they want to restrict our travel, it would not be wise to boycott airlines as the government will just further subsidize them. I am suggesting that other companies are boycotted to the point their stock prices drop until their CEO's and Board members tell their owned assets in congress to stop the bleeding. I am suggesting a boycott that each quarter grows with another company name on the list. Within 2 consecutive quarters, the impact will be felt, and those companies listed next will be panic'd to realize the slaves have awoken. Since our congress is not listening to us, let them listen to the executives of: 1. GM- Buy No new vehicles till scanners are removed 2. Chrysler- Buy No new vehicles till scanners are removed 3. Disney- Buy no products or visit the parks or see the movies 4. New York Times- Buy no papers (Perhaps we can identify another advertiser in their paper boycott) 5. FOX news- Stop watching- lowering their Neilsen ratings and thus their price for advertizing on air After 2 consecutive quarters, let We the people add more to the list- this time we add more companies

  1. Bank of America- Close all accounts
  2. Citigroup- Close all accounts
  3. Walmart- No more shopping at ChinaCo
  4. Exxon (buy gas but not from here, this will force them to have a surplus and drive their share down)

in 30 days if the machines are still at the airports- add:

  1. BP (buy gas but not from here, this will force them to have a surplus and drive their share down)
  2. Chevron (buy gas but not from here, this will force them to have a surplus and drive their share down)

Once these companies start seeing their profits disappear they will end the boycott by removing the machines from all airports. IMHO, Cronyism is what led to these machines being put in place, and Cronyism means profit. Take the profits from others in their circles, and those people will clean their own house. If our votes are not being heard, our Boycott will drive the powers that be into doing the right thing, or our elected officials will lose their campaign contributions

Ghost of Franklin

Mendal November 10, 2010 at 09:36 pm

You guys are nutty. The amount of radiation put out is miniscule. You are just afraid some one will see wee willy. Why don't you talk about how to get an upgrade? Isn't that what this blog is suppose to be about?

Sean November 11, 2010 at 08:27 am

@Mendal, If I was worried about someone seeing my "Willy" I would have a problem with the millimeter wave scanner. I don't. Plus, there are only so many blog post that can be made about getting upgrades. The process simply isn't that complex. This blog covers a much broader range of topics that are of interest or concern to frequent travelers.

@Mendal: You caught us. Thousands of pilots, doctors, and concerned citizens are worried that the big-bad TSA is going to embarrass us. All those civil liberties, health, and economic concerns are all just subterfuges to hide our own insecurities about our manhood.


Have you ever read the IVth Amendment? Or even examined the links I have presented in my many blogs on the subjects?

You sound like a TSA troll when you make comments like your one above.

@Sean: Thanks for your comment. You shouldn't be comfortable with the millimeter wave scanner either! ;)

@PeaceDove: Thanks for your comment. I don't think a boycott would work and I think a boycott disrupting our way of life, like the nude-o-scopes themselves, signify a victory for the terrorists. Their intent was not just to maim and kill on 9.11, but to produce a culture of fear and disruption that we see manifested in the TSA.

I'll continue to advocate against AIT, but I'm not going to boycott other companies.


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