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X-ray Scanners Leaving U.S. Airports By June

January 21, 2013
Written by: , Filed in: Diagnostic Imaging, Medical Ethics
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Controversial backscatter X-ray security scanners will disappear from U.S. airports by June, says the Transportation Security Administration. But the federal government still plans to use them elsewhere.

The full-body scanners caused controversy for two exposure-related reasons: fears that exposure to X-rays could harm passengers, and complaints that the body outlines on the scanner monitors were too revealing.

It’s the second problem that caused the scanners’ downfall. Congress ordered that, by June, the scanners either produce a more generic image or be removed. Last week, according to the Associated Press, the scanner maker, Rapiscan, said it couldn’t create software to accomplish that task by the deadline.

The TSA said it would remove the 174 X-ray scanners now in use at 30 airports. The agency has another 76 in storage. It had already removed them from seven major airports in October and sent them to smaller airports, as we reported back in November. The reason given was that they’re much slower to scan than the other type of full-body scanner at use in airports, which uses millimeter waves rather than X-rays.

Millimeter waves, similar in frequency to cell-phone signals, have not been associated with health concerns, and they generate a generic body outline, not the sort of virtual disrobing that X-ray scanners produce.

OSI Systems Inc., parent company of Rapiscan, said the X-ray machines would find uses elsewhere in government where privacy wasn’t a concern, such as at military bases or prisons. OSI’s chief financial officer, Alan Edrick, said:

There’s quite a few agencies which will have a great deal of interest.

The TSA has 669 millimeter-wave scanners, plus options for 60 more. But they have a shortcoming too: accuracy. ProPublica has reported that, in tests abroad, millimeter-wave machines produced a false-positive rate of 23 percent to 54 percent, compared with less than 5 percent for backscatter X-ray scanners.

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A former Siemens AG compliance officer is suing the company, saying he was fired after trying to expose a kickback scheme involving sales of scanners in China. For details, see our Facebook page.

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