11/17/2011 05:12 pm ET Updated Jan 17, 2012

Cancer-Causing Airport Scanners? Enough Is Enough

Just when you started to think it might be safe to fly again...

Remember those whole-body, X-ray scanners the government installed in airports across the country and kept insisting were so safe? It turns out that they're not so safe, after all. According to an investigative report by "ProPublica/PBS NewsHour," anywhere from six to 100 U.S. airline passengers each year could get cancer from the machines.

Many Americans initially objected to the invasive nature of the scans, which have been likened to "virtual strip searches" because of the degree to which intimate details of the body are revealed. In response, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) attempted to alter the devices to make the X-ray images less graphic. Unfortunately, the TSA has done little to nothing about the concerns increasingly being raised about the risk of cancer from the scanners.

Yet as far back as 1998, radiation experts were warning against using X-ray scanners to peer beneath people's clothing in the search for weapons and contraband, insisting that the machines violate a longstanding principle in radiation safety -- that humans shouldn't be X-rayed unless there is a medical benefit. More recently, in April 2010, four members of the University of California faculty relayed to Dr. John P. Holdren, President Obama's Science and Technology czar, their concerns about the serious health risks posed to travelers by the whole body backscatter X-ray scanners, which concentrate radiation on the skin. Refuting the TSA's insistence that the scanners are safe, the scientists believe that the scanners could cause mutations and skin cancer. Other scientists have also voiced their concerns over the devices, such as Dr. David Brenner, who heads Columbia University's Center for Radiological Research. He states that radiation produced by the scanners is 20 times higher than the official estimate.

Incredibly, the government has continued to dismiss the medical and scientific community's concerns about these X-ray machines, relying instead on safety assurances from profit-driven corporations such as Rapiscan. As a result, notes investigative reporter Michael Grabell, "the United States has begun marching millions of airline passengers through the X-ray body scanners, parting ways with countries in Europe and elsewhere that have concluded that such widespread use of even low-level radiation poses an unacceptable health risk. The government is rolling out the X-ray scanners despite having a safer alternative that the Transportation Security Administration says is also highly effective." (Grabell is referring to millimeter-wave scanners, which rely on low-energy radio waves and perform the exact same function as X-ray scanners without the potential harm to health.)

The "ProPublica/PBS NewsHour" report, which is available here, traces the history of the scanners, details exactly how the decision to deploy these scanners came about, and documents the gaps in regulation that allowed them to avoid rigorous safety evaluation. This report is a damning indictment of the extent to which the American people have been sold to the highest corporate bidder by government leaders.

As Grabell points out, even the TSA's argument that the scanners are essential to preventing attacks on airplanes starts to fall apart once you realize that they waited nine years after 9/11 to start deploying them, and only after being lobbied heavily by Rapiscan, which wanted to get their machines in airports throughout the country. Their lobbying paid off to the tune of $300 million in revenue in 2011: While there are other manufacturers of these machines, Rapiscan is the only one supplying them to American airports.

Currently, there are roughly 250 X-ray scanners and 264 millimeter-wave scanners in U.S. airports, largely funded by Obama's stimulus plan. By the end of 2012, the TSA intends to have 1,275 backscatter and millimeter-wave scanners covering more than half its security lanes, with 1,800 covering nearly all the lanes by 2014. As Grabell reports, "The TSA has designated the scanners for 'primary' screening: Officers will direct every passenger, including children, to go through either a metal detector or a body scanner, and the passenger's only alternative will be to request a physical pat-down."

Of course, the retributive, harsh treatment and excessive full-body searches being meted out to those who decline a full-body scan may not be a very comforting alternative to the TSA's virtual strip searches. While having a full-body frisk may not pose any direct health risks, it has becoming increasingly apparent that TSA agents carry out the physical searches in so invasive and humiliating a manner as to discourage travelers from opting out of the scans.

It's bad enough having to shell out exorbitant amounts of money in order to travel, but there's no reason any individual should be forced to choose between a certified health risk or a humiliating, invasive search of their person by ill-trained government agents.

To say that "we the people" have done a sorry job of holding our representatives accountable or standing up for our rights is putting it mildly, but there must be a limit to our temerity. At a minimum, the X-ray scanners need to be replaced with radio-frequency millimeter-wave scanners, which, unlike their counterparts, have not been shown to cause cancer in humans. And the DHS and TSA need to go back to the drawing board and find a better way to protect national security without sacrificing our health and our freedoms.

We've suffered countless abuses since 9/11. In the name of national security, we've been subjected to government agents wiretapping our phones, reading our mail, monitoring our emails and carrying out warrantless "black bag" searches of our homes. Then we had to deal with surveillance cameras mounted on street corners and in traffic lights, weather satellites co-opted for use as spy cameras from space, and thermal sensory imaging devices that can detect heat and movement through walls. Now we find ourselves subjected to cancer-causing full-body scanners in airports, and all the government can say is that it's "a really, really small amount relative to the security benefit you're going to get."

What will it take for Americans to finally say enough is enough?

A longer version of this commentary can be found here.