12/30/2009 12:25 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Getting X-Rayed at the Airport: Radiation Risk Anyone?

When I was a child growing up in Chicago, a trip to the pediatrician was made tolerable by a cool machine, called a Fluoroscope, in the doc's examination room that allowed my brothers and me to stand in front of it, fully clothed, and get a look at each others' innards. (The ribs were always my favorite). The neighborhood shoe store had its own abbreviated version: we put on the shoes we wanted to buy and stuck our feet in an x-ray machine so my mother could see if we really had enough growing room.

I shudder now at the very thought of this excess radiation; then again our pediatrician chained-smoked his way through examining us and, before long, died of lung cancer.

Having just consumed the four newspapers that land at my doorstep every morning, I read in both Chicago dailies and the New York Times and Wall Street Journal much about the full-body scanners that seem destined for airports around the world-- in hopes that they might prevent another near miss like the Christmas Day attempt by the young Nigerian to blow a hole in the side of the Amsterdam to Detroit airplane. I read about the ACLU and privacy concerns. I read that the scanners won't detect dangerous materials in body orifices; or stowed between layers of fat in an obese passengers. I read in an editorial in the Chicago Tribune that the scanners are "similar to MRI machines." I read in the Chicago Sun-Times that they're like "low-level X-rays."

I've read nothing about the accumulated radiation risk. Will pregnant women be forced to submit? What about women who aren't certain that they're pregnant? What about adolescents whose bodies are still developing, or, worse yet, infants or toddlers. Surely the day will come when some would-be terrorist decides to hide his chemicals and syringes in a baby's diaper or PJs.

What about people who fly often for business? What about the possibility that human error, messed-up settings could cause the machines to expose passengers to excess levels of radiation. It happened in one of the country's best hospitals recently when patients undergoing CT scans were exposed to dangerous, even potentially deadly, levels of radiation. Will we want to trust TSA employers to make certain all settings are correct all or even most of the time?

Before the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Congress revisits this issue--invasion of privacy has been the key concern for the latter--the subject of radiation exposure must be addressed.

Maureen Dowd conjured up a wonderful image in her column on Wednesday--of passengers herded through security in hospital gowns, "flapping open in the back."

Perhaps something could be worked out so passengers ordered into the scanners could get mammograms and dental x-rays at the same time.