J. D. Heyes
Besides the fact that they are being operated by an agency that demonstrates on a daily basis a disdain and disregard for discretion, privacy, and professionalism, the Transportation Security Administration’s full-body backscatter x-ray machines are just not safe.
That’s the diagnosis of Dr. Dong Kim, the neurosurgeon who treated U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., when she was shot in the head in January 2011 by a crazed gunman in Tucson.
“There is really no absolutely safe dose of radiation,” said Kim, chair of the department of neurosurgery at the University of Texas Medical School. “Each exposure is additive, and there is no need to incur any extra radiation when there is an alternative.”
In fact, Kim says he doesn’t allow the TSA to irradiate him when he travels; he always opts for the individual pat down when passing through airport security.
More opting out
He’s not alone. Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, also says he opts out of the x-ray, citing concerns that the machines may not be properly calibrated and inspected in a timely manner.
That kind of apprehension is spreading. The European Union is so concerned about the radiation levels emitted by backscatter x-ray machines that it has put a moratorium on their use continent-wide.
The more is known about them, the more dangerous they seem.
The machines, according to the Alliance for Natural Health, emit x-ray signals that “skim the entire surface of your skin instead of being directed to a localized area of your body, which means that radiation levels could be 10 to 20 times higher than the manufacturer’s calculations.” The low-level ionizing radiation emitted can also cause skin cancer.
The not-for-profit investigative journalist group known as ProPublica filed a report in November 2011 citing similar health concerns from noted radiation safety experts who had gathered in Maryland to evaluate a backscatter machine called Secure 1000. When the experts learned the machine used x-rays to see through people’s clothing, they were alarmed.
Many within the group, which convened at the behest of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said the way the machine functioned appeared to violate a cardinal rule governing radiation safety: Humans really should not be x-rayed unless there is some medical benefit.
“I think this is really a slippery slope,” Jill Lipoti, one-time director of New Jersey’s radiation protection program.
Raising red flags
Already, such machines were deployed in prisons but what was next, she and others wondered – schools, courthouses…airports?
“I am concerned … with expanding this type of product for the traveling public,” Stanley Savic, the vice president for safety at a large electronics company, said. “I think that would take this thing to an entirely different level of public health risk.”
Steven W. Smith, the machine’s inventor, assuaged panelists’ angst by assuring them he did not think his machine would see widespread use in the United States. At the time, he told them, only about 20 were in use around the country.
“The places I think you are not going to see these in the next five years is lower-security facilities, particularly power plants, embassies, courthouses, airports and governments,” he said. “I would be extremely surprised in the next five to ten years if the Secure 1000 is sold to any of these.”
My, how a few months have changed things.
Today, of course, the U.S. government has begun sending millions of travelers through the backscatter machines, health risks – and the assessment of legitimate radiation safety experts – notwithstanding.
What’s more, the government has chosen machines despite the existence of a safer alternative even the loathsome TSA says is equally effective.
The question then becomes – Why? More people should be asking their government.
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