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US Senator: 'Retest airport scanner safety'

X-ray pervscanners harmless? New bill says 'Prove it'

By Rik Myslewski, 31 Jan 2012

A top Republican lawmaker is poised to introduce a bill in the US Senate that would require the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to hire an independent lab to study the health effects of backscatter x-ray passenger-screening machines – aka pervscanners – at airports, and to ensure that ticket-holders know of their rights to refuse such screenings.

"Our bill would require the independent study on the possible health effects of the x-ray radiation emitted by some of the scanning machines and give airline passengers, especially those passengers in sensitive groups, such as pregnant women, clear notice of their ability to choose another screening option in lieu of exposure to ionizing radiation," Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) told The Reg in an email.

A spokeswoman for Collins – who is the ranking minority member of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs – told us that she believed that Collins would introduce the bill on Tuesday, "but it's still a moving target."

A draft of the bill, supplied to us by Collin's office, requires the DHS's Under Secretary for Science and Technology – currently Tara O'Toole – to identify and contract with an independent testing lab "in consultation with the National Science Foundation, from among laboratories with expertise in the conduct of similar studies."

Backscatter x-ray screen machines have been in use since 2009, but have caused consternation among airline passengers not only for their ability to see through clothes, but also because they employ low-level ionizing radiation, which some studies have claimed can damage DNA and possibly cause cancer and other nastiness.

The TSA – which cranked up its scanner effort after the failed Christmas Day 2009 airline-bombing attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallabs, aka The Nigerian Crotch Bomber – uses two types of scanners in its Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) efforts: the backscatter x-ray devices that Collins is worked up about, and the more-benign millimeter wave scanners. According to the AIT, there are currently about 540 total scanners in use at over 100 airports.

"I have urged TSA to move toward using only radiation-free screening technology," Collins told The Reg. "In the meantime, an independent study is needed to protect the public and to determine what technology is worthy of taxpayer dollars."

Clearly, Collins isn't taking the AIT's word for it when it says that testing of the backscatter scanners, performed by Food and Drug Administrations Center for Devices and Radiological Health, the National Institute for Standards and Technology, and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, showed the devices to be safe.

"All results confirmed that the radiation doses for the individuals being screened, operators, and bystanders were well below the dose limits specified by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI)," says the AIT.

"Advanced imaging technology screening is safe for all passengers, including children, pregnant women, and individuals with medical implants," says the AIT.

Not true for backscatter x-rays, say some boffins and boffin wannabes, who claim that any level of the ionizing radiation carries some danger. The American Pilots Association, for example, has advised its members to steer clear of backscatter scanners entirely.

In April 2010, a group of faculty members at the prestigious University of California at San Francisco sent a "Letter of Concern" to the Obama administration's Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, urging him to "empower an impartial panel of experts to reevaluate the potential health issues we have raised before there are irrevocable long-term consequences to the health of our country."

Which is exactly what Collins' bill would require – although her bill also requires that "large, easily readable signs or equivalent electronic displays are placed at the front of airline passenger check point queues where backscatter advanced imaging technology machines are used for screening to inform airline passengers ... that they may request to undergo alternative screening procedures..."

Such visible information would enlighten airline passengers as to their options – which would include taking the advice of political commentator and satirist, voice of The Simpsons' Charles Montgomery Burns and Ned Flanders, and Spinal Tap bass player Harry Shearer, who tweeted his opinion: "A patdown is for the moment, radiation is forever." ®