I have just returned from a long-anticipated spring break trip with my husband and children. We went via a different airline in a different terminal than usual. Surprise! They've got the advanced imaging technology.
There are two types of these advanced imaging technologies: the backscatter scanners (which use ionizing radiation) and millimeter-wave scanners (which emit low-energy waves).
This terminal happened to have the backscatter scanners and -- lo and behold -- I was chosen for it. My only alternative? The controversial physical screen. And surely nothing says "Good Morning" like a full body pat-down, with lots of on-lookers to enjoy the show.
I was certainly not happy about this invasive maneuver but I found it to be preferable over the quicker and more efficient scan. This, despite the fact that I have researched and written on the very low risk that is associated with these backscatter scanners. So why my refusal of the scan?
It is purported that the long-term health dangers from these radiation-emitting scanners are inconsequential. In fact, this past Monday a study was released online in the Archives of Internal Medicine, proclaiming the relative safety of these devices.
The researchers report that one scan delivers only about three to nine minutes of the radiation received through everyday living. "Based on what is known about the scanners, passengers should not fear going through the scans for health reasons, as the risks are truly trivial," the authors wrote. "If individuals feel vulnerable and are worried about the radiation emitted by the scans, they might reconsider flying altogether since most of the small, but real, radiation risk they will receive will come from the flight and not from the exceedingly small exposures from the scans."
Still, questions remain over radiation risks and not all experts are in agreement of the safety of this "security blanket." What's more: Science is fallible. What we think we know today, may not be the case tomorrow, next week, next year ...
What we do know is this: Radiation has risks. Of course, this is a graded phenomenon. Some types of radiation are more risky than others; more exposure, more risk. These scans intend to emit very, very low doses. In fact, you'd need to get 1000 of them a year to approach the same level of radiation you'd get from one chest x-ray (so says the manufacturer of one of these devices).
But experts have noted that scientists have not been able to independently measure and verify radiation doses from these machines because they have not been allowed such access to the scanners. Furthermore, one expert has expressed concern over hypothetical situations where system failure might cause an inadvertent high dose of radiation rather than the low dose intended.
Even the authors of the Archives study note that additional testing of these scanners would be prudent.
Now, I did have another reason in refusing: The pictures generated from these machines are intimate. Very intimate. Simply put, I found it less invasive to have the female TSA employee pat me down with gloves on than have other TSA employees see my naked outline with no definitive knowledge or power on my part over how the image was created/used/stored/etc.
The TSA has focused on passenger privacy: Images of the face are blurred, special software is utilized to make the images "less provocative," and personnel who view the images are separated from the passengers to avoid direct view.
The scanners reportedly do have the capacity to store and export images, but airport scanners do not have this capability. Still, reports of improperly saved and disseminated scanner images are in existence, as are questions over TSA employees' ability to bypass restrictive mechanisms and procedures.
I never say never (well, barely ever) so there may come a day when it makes sense to me to simply walk through, should I be selected again for one of these scans. As the body of longer term data begins to accumulate, I will weigh and consider. Until then, I will continue to seek my preferred alternative.
In my book, The New Prescription: How to Get the Best Health Care in a Broken System, I discuss how little things, day in and day out, can add up to better -- or worse -- health. Radiation exposure, however small, is a known risk to our health. My bottom line: Must I receive radiation for lack of an alternative? In this scenario, thankfully, no. The alternative in this case is that full body pat-down, completely devoid of any radiation exposure.
So, for now, I choose the latter.