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Warnings on Whole Body Scanners

By PCN Staff

There are serious health concerns about full-body X-ray scanners at airports. This is an urgent situation as these scanners are rapidly being implemented as a primary screening step for all air travel passengers.

full-body-scan-machineAccording to experts, there is a serious concern about the extent to which the safety of these scanning devices have been adequately demonstrated. Considering that such a large fraction of the population will be subject to the new X-ray scanners, this is worrisome.

The Red Flags

Unlike other scanners, the majority of the energy of these new devices is delivered to the skin and underlying tissue. While the dose would be safe if it were distributed throughout the volume of the entire body, the dose to the skin may be dangerously high.

Scientists, dermatologists and cancer experts have raised specific important concerns, including:

  • The large population of older travelers is particularly at risk from the mutagenic effects of the X-rays;
  • A fraction of the female population is especially sensitive to mutagenesis-provoking radiation which can lead to breast cancer. Notably, because these women, who have defects in DNA repair mechanisms, are particularly prone to cancer, X-ray mammograms are not performed on them. The dose to breast tissue beneath the skin represents a similar risk;
  • The population of immune-compromised individuals (e.g. HIV and cancer patients) is likely to be at risk for cancer from by the high skin dose;
  • The risk of radiation emission to children and adolescents does not appear to have been fully evaluated;
  • The policy towards pregnant women needs to be defined once the theoretical risks to the fetus are determined;
  • Because of the proximity of the testicles to skin, this tissue is at risk for sperm mutagenesis;
  • Effects of the radiation on the cornea of the eye and the thymus gland need to be studied; and
  • There are serious concerns about the scanning machines themselves. Because these devices can scan a human in a few seconds, the X-ray beam is very intense. Any glitch in power at any point in the hardware – or more importantly in software – that stops the device could cause an intense radiation dose to a single spot on the skin.

Much more research is needed before the population should be exposed to full body X-ray scanners. An independent and impartial panel of experts (including medical physicists and radiation biologists) needs to review the data and re-evaluate the potential health issues, as there are irrevocable long-term consequences to the population. Modifications that may reduce radiation exposure also need to be explored.

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