The oversite of upkeep for full-body X-ray scanners by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has come into question after a number of errors were discovered among device maintenance inspection reports. The agency is in the process of re-testing a total of 247 machines located in thirty-eight airports across the U.S. after maintenance records indicated that a certain type of machine showed radiation levels ten times higher than expected.
The TSA has continued to assure lawmakers that the machines are safe, and that the unexpected radiation results are nothing more than mathematical errors. According to Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine, “TSA has repeatedly assured me that the machines that emit radiation do not pose a health risk.” She then added, “Nonetheless, if TSA contractors reporting on the radiation levels have done such a poor job, how can airline passengers and crew have confidence in the data used by the TSA to reassure the public?”
Even with the highest readings recorded, a person’s risk of developing cancer from airport X-rays remains to be very small at about one in 10 million. The levels reported are is still far less than natural background radiation absorbed by a person in a single day. However, according to one expert, David J. Brenner, director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University Medical Center in New York, due to the sheer volume of people that pass through the machines on a daily basis, frequent flyers, children, and those who are sensitive to radioactivity could still develop cancer.
According to the TSA, there are two types of X-ray scanners currently in use at airports. One generates an image from enegy reflected by the body with the use of millimeter wave technology, and that energy is 10,000 times less than a cell phone transmission. The other, known as a backscatter X-ray, reflects ionizing energy back from the body and objects on the body that is converted into an image. The energy from this type of X-ray is equal to the radiation absorbed during two minutes of flight time in an airplane.
Brenner pointed out, “It is reasonable to say that for an average individual, the scanners are safe.” He also said that for safety reasons, it would be preferrable for the TSA to use X-rays with millimeter wave technology versus backscatter X-rays whenever possible. However, it must be noted that the benefits of the X-ray screening in general continue to outweigh the potential risks when consideration is given to the avoidance of security breaches, and prevention of terrorism.
There are approximately 4,500 radiation-emitting devices, including those that examine luggage, located in airports across the country. In 2008, a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s worker safety division found that the TSA and its maintenance contractors failed to detect radiation emissions from baggage X-ray machines that exceeded regulatory levels, and sometimes took no action when machine safety features were missing or disabled.
The TSA has now announced that it will require contractors to re-train personnel. In addition, the agency recently posted reports regarding 127 X-ray-emitting devices on its website, and plans to release results future inspections of other devices. According to TSA spokesman Nick Kimball, about one-third of the reports posted so far showed some type of error.
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