The Medical Problems of Airport Screening: It’s Not Just the Radiation

The Medical Problems of Airport Screening: It’s Not Just the Radiation

By: Jane M. Orient, M.D.

The radiation dose is likely the least of the problems with airport screening.

If operating as specified, a scanner delivers about 0.01 millirad of radiation, or 0.00001 rad.  You unavoidably get 10,000 times as much from the natural environment every year.The worry is not surprising in a nation that has been barraged with antinuclear propaganda for decades. Keeping people terrified of doses even tinier than those from airport scanners seems to be government policy. Fearmongering has likely caused a $10 trillion loss to our economy by stopping the expansion of nuclear power plants, and greater dependency on hostile foreigners for energy—including those who sponsor terrorism.

We must not induce unreasoned fear, not even to oppose an outrageous assault on liberty. There is, however, another aspect to the airport scanners. They use an ingenious low-energy backscatter technique, which is apparently wonderful for identifying explosives in cargo. Since the radiation doesn’t penetrate far, it wouldn’t affect an unborn baby. But it does concentrate the dose in the skin.

Some scientists warn that this effect has not been properly studied, and one nuclear medicine expert told me that he is going to opt out of the scan. I think this much is clear: if you had a deadly disease, and the scanner were an FDA-regulated device that might save your life, your doctor wouldn’t be allowed to use it, because of inadequate study.

Also, if your doctor had an ownership interest in the scanner, he might go to federal prison for referring you for a scan. These anti-kickback laws, however, do not apply to the influential government cronies who stand to make a fortune from the scanners.

Leaving aside the radiation, let’s look at U.S. airport security from the perspective of a terrorist, or a Martian. We have TSA agents scurrying about, fighting the last war against the shoe and the underwear bombers, both caught by vigilant human beings. The threat is from aspiring martyrs, who are captive to an ideology that advocates turning its sons and daughters, even little children, into bombs.

So is the remedy to subject all Americans to virtual strip searches, and even little children to groping that we teach them is wrong? Does it make us safe, and are the medical and psychological side effects worth it?

Inmates of Nazi concentration camps were frequently subjected to strip searches. It was probably just one more way to dehumanize the prisoners.

The TSA process treats American travelers (except congressmen and other significant people) like prisoners, and strips them of Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. It subjects them to enhanced risk of loss (or theft) of important things like their indispensable government-issued photo ID. While in the scanner, their luggage is unattended—what about that risk of “introduction of items without their knowledge”? And what about the transmission of scabies, crab lice, bedbug larvae, and all manner of germs by TSA gropers? Do they change gloves and wash their hands between subjects, as hospital personnel must do?

The option of a “private room” is no protection against violation of dignity. We need, so to speak, transparency in government operations. Let Americans see—and record on video—their protectors in action. Let them watch agents search a screaming three year old to see whether it makes them feel safer.

How much “safety” is enough? Will a virtual stripping suffice, or do we need an invasive body cavity search of everyone? Even then, there would be threats. Swallowed explosives detonated by radio frequency. A bomb set off in the crowd waiting to get through security. A blast in the luggage compartment. A missile launch.

The Israelis use intelligence, but Americans seem to have ruled that out, to keep our agents safe from the charge of “profiling.”

Safety requires vigilance, not mindless rules. We need plainclothes observers, watching for tell-tale behavior. We might consider screening polygraphs with questions such as “Where do you expect to be this evening?” For suspected explosives, we have sniffers: technologic ones, and dogs.

Watching the holiday scene at the airport may awaken Americans to the reality that we are not rich enough or powerful enough to keep acting this stupid.

Use those scanners to check luggage and cargo. But still, it’s not the radiation that’s the problem; it’s the abandonment of common sense.


Jane M. Orient, M.D., On Air contributor speaking on Healthcare Reform.  Dr. Orient has appeared on NBC, MSNBC, ABC and many major broadcast venues throughout the US, as well and her Op-eds have been printed in hundreds of local and international newspapers, magazines and followed on major blogs.Dr. Orient is the Executive Director of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons.  She has been in solo practice of general internal medicine since 1981 and is a clinical lecturer in medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. She received her undergraduate degrees in chemistry and mathematics from the University of Arizona, and her M.D. from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. She is the author of Sapira’s Art and Science of Bedside Diagnosis; the fourth edition has just been published by Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins. She also authored YOUR Doctor Is Not In: Healthy Skepticism about National Health Care, published by Crown. She is the executive director of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, a voice for patients’ and physicians’ independence since 1943. Complete curriculum vitae posted at www.drjaneorient.com.

Dr. Orient’s position on Obama’s healthcare reform:  “The Obama plan will increase individual health insurance costs, and if the federal government puts price controls on the premiums, the companies will simply have to go out of business. Obama makes promises, but the Plan will deliver higher costs, more hassles, fewer choices, less innovation, and less patient care.” Doctor Orient resides in Tucson, AZ and can be reached at jane@aapsonline.org.

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