Once more on the subject of flying, a growing debate has emerged over the body scanners the Transportation Security Administration is installing at airports around the nation. Many of the blog entries I've read focused on the privacy issues surrounding the devices, but NPR recently ran a story detailing potential health concerns about whole body backscatter X-ray scanners.
What caught my attention is that four faculty from UC San Francisco wrote a letter to the Obama administration raising, in their words, "serious concerns about the potential health risks of the recently adopted whole body backscatter X-ray airport security scanners" (NPR is hosting a PDF of the letter here). They also wrote:
The X-ray dose from these devices has often been compared in the media to the cosmic ray exposure inherent to airplane travel or that of a chest X-ray. However, this comparison is very misleading: both the air travel cosmic ray exposure and chest X- rays have much higher X-ray energies and the health consequences are appropriately understood in terms of the whole body volume dose. In contrast, these new airport scanners are largely depositing their energy into the skin and immediately adjacent tissue, and since this is such a small fraction of body weight/vol, possibly by one to two orders of magnitude, the real dose to the skin is now high.
And as they closed the letter:
As longstanding UCSF scientists and physicians, we have witnessed critical errors in decisions that have seriously affected the health of thousands of people in the United States. These unfortunate errors were made because of the failure to recognize potential adverse outcomes of decisions made at the federal level. Crises create a sense of urgency that
frequently leads to hasty decisions where unintended consequences are not recognized. Examples include the failure of the CDC to recognize the risk of blood transfusions in the early stages of the AIDS epidemic, approval of drugs and devices by the FDA without sufficient review, and improper standards set by the EPA, to name a few. Similarly, there has not been sufficient review of the intermediate and long-term effects of radiation exposure associated with airport scanners. There is good reason to believe that these scanners will increase the risk of cancer to children and other vulnerable populations.