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Even Pilots Rebel At New Airport X-ray Scans

November 16, 2010
Written by: , Filed in: Medical Ethics
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Two pilots unions have warned their members to avoid the new X-ray security scanners that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has been deploying at airports across the country.

Captain Mike Cleary, president of the U.S. Airline Pilots Association (USAPA), wrote the following in a letter to members:

Based on currently available medical information, USAPA has determined that frequent exposure to TSA-operated scanner devices may subject pilots to significant health risks.

Cleary worries about radiation exposure. As DOTmed reports, the TSA is installing two types of scanners. One uses millimeter-wavelength radio waves—nonionizing radiation—to create a two-dimensional image of the passenger. No one seems particularly concerned about its health risks.

The other type of scanner, however, uses backscatter X-ray technology, which does involve ionizing radiation, albeit not much of it. The American College of Radiology says 1,000 backscatter scans would deliver a cumulative dose equal to that of just one chest X-ray.

Others, including Arizona State University physics professor Peter Rez, DPhil, say the dosage is somewhat higher, but still so small that, as Dr. Rez told USA Today, the probability of dying from cancer induced by airport scanners equals the probability of being blown up on a plane by a terrorist.

However, Dr. Rez and others worry that the machines may malfunction and deliver a much greater dose.

Pilots say they already receive more radiation than most people because they spend so much time above most of the radiation-shielding effects of the atmosphere and because they go through so many airport scanners.

“We’re already at the top of the radiation (exposure) charts to begin with because we”re flying at high altitudes for long distances, said Sam Mayer, a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association. “The cumulative effects of this are more than most pilots are willing to subject themselves to. We’re right up there with nuclear power plant workers in terms of exposure.”

Some experts worry that the radiation dose may pose added danger because it’s concentrated on the skin rather than distributed throughout the body. Some also worry about people who are particularly vulnerable to radiation, such as those with compromised immune systems or women with a genetic susceptibility to breast cancer.

There is an alternative: a full pat-down search—and we mean “full,” including the buttocks and the insides of the thighs. On Saturday, California software engineer John Tyner became an instant Internet celebrity for refusing both the X-ray scan and the pat-down search at San Diego International Airport, telling the TSA agent, “If you touch my junk, I’ll have you arrested.” Tyner was not allowed to board the plane and, for a while, was not allowed to leave the airport. He says he was told that once he started the screening, he had to complete it or he would be subject to a civil suit and a $10,000 fine. You can read his story and see videos he shot with his cell-phone camera at his blog.

Related seminar: Head To Toe Imaging

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