Are Airport Full Body Scanners A Health Menace? - Yves Smith

Posted by ProjectC 
By Yves Smith
Monday, January 4, 2010

Dear readers, the headline may seem a tad alarmist, so let’s work though the claims and counter claims:

Full body scanning involves radiation. The medical profession has been pretty remiss about pointing out the dangers of radiation, even though radiation can cause cancer. That’s probably because a quite a few diagnostic tests involve the use of radiation, and they are too often cavalier about it (has any doctor about to give you an X-ray bothered asking how many you’ve had over your lifetime?) Yes, we’ve had some exceptions, like doctors arguing against the recent fad of annual full body CT scans because the dose is equal to that of several years of background radiation, but that posture is comparatively rare (one of my pet beefs has long been the until recent recommendation to get annual mammograms starting at age 40. Mammograms are a terrible test, with a high level of false positives and false negatives; a manual exam by an experienced practitioner has a much higher success rate of catching the fast-growing, dangerous cancers, but doesn’t fit the modern idea of what a test should look like. Oh, and all those radiologists have an installed base of equipment they need to pay off. Think that might have an effect on their view of the situation?)

The writing here (from NoWorldSystem) is as tad sensationalistic. While it does cite medical experts, but does not provide data about the doses involved:

<blockquote>TSA Security Laboratory Director Susan Hallowell recently announced the agency’s intent to use back-scatter X-ray machines for passenger surveillance. These hugely expensive, closet-sized zappers can find the plastic bombs hidden in grandma’s underpants, while delivering a smacking dose of ionizing radiation to her breasts and thyroid gland.</blockquote>

Yves here. I hate to sound heartless, but I wouldn’t get too wound up about zapping older people. Unless they are aging jet-setters, they won’t get too many doses in what is left of their life. It’s younger people, particularly corporate road warriors and airline staff, who are at the most risk. Back to the details:

<blockquote>Virtually all passengers and airline crews who pass through airport screening checkpoints in the U.S. may soon be forced to submit to compulsory, whole-body X-ray exposure…

Officials must naturally defend compulsory passenger X-rays as harmless. But they are signing no guarantees because ionizing radiation in the X-ray spectrum damages and mutates both chromosomal DNA and structural proteins in human cells. If this damage is not repaired, it can lead to cancer. New research shows that even very low doses of X-ray can delay or prevent cellular repair of damaged DNA, raising questions about the safety of routine medical X-rays. Unborn babies can become grotesquely disfigured if their mothers are irradiated during pregnancy. Heavily X- rayed persons of childbearing age can sustain chromosomal damage, endangering offspring. Radiation damage is cumulative and each successive dose builds upon the cellular mutation caused by the last. It can take years for radiation damage to manifest pathology.

A leading U.S. expert on the biological effects of X-radiation is Dr. John Gofman, Professor Emeritus of Molecular and Cell Biology, University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Gofman’s exhaustive research leads him to conclude that there is NO SAFE DOSE-LEVEL of ionizing radiation. His studies indicate that radiation from medical diagnostics and treatment is a causal co-factor in 50 percent of America’s cancers and 60 percent of our ischemic (blood flow blockage) heart disease. He stresses that the frequency with which Americans are medically X-rayed “makes for a significant radiological impact.”

This highly credentialed nuclear physicist states: “The fact, that X-ray doses are so seldom measured, reflects the false assumption that doses do not matter…[but] they do matter enormously. And each bit of additional dose matters, because any X-ray photon may be the one which sets in motion the high-speed, high energy electron which causes a carcinogenic or atherogenic [smooth muscle] mutation. Such mutations rarely disappear. The higher their accumulated number in a population, the higher will be the population’s mortality rates from radiation-induced cancer and ischemic heart disease.”

A report in the British medical journal Lancet noted that after breast mammograms were introduced in 1983, the incidence of ductal carcinoma (12 percent of breast cancer) increased by 328 percent, of which 200 percent was due to the use of mammography itself. A Lawrence Berkeley National Lab study has demonstrated that breast tissue is extremely susceptible to radiation-induced cancer, confirming warnings by numerous experts that mammograms can initiate the very cancers they may later identify. Dr. Gofman believes that medical radiation is a co-factor in 75 percent of breast cancer cases. So why would girls and women want their breast tissues irradiated every time they take a commercial flight?…

Airline pilots and cabin crews suffer a significant incidence of leukemia, skin and breast cancer due to chromosomal damage from ionizing cosmic radiation encountered during years of flying at high altitudes.

Dr. Gofman’s research reveals a dose-response relationship between medical X-rays and fatal heart disease, the number one killer of Americans. He found that X-radiation is a powerful atherogen, causing mutations in smooth muscle cells of coronary arteries. These radiation damaged cells are unable to process lipoproteins correctly, resulting in atherosclerotic plaques and mini tumors in the arteries. Radiation used to treat breast cancer can badly damage the heart.

As Dr. Gofman and other experts argue for improved diagnostic techniques and equipment to reduce medically necessary X-ray exposure, TSA gears up to impose frivolous, nonmusical exposure, even though conventional airline security measures have proven adequate since 9/11. To date, the National Institutes of Health, the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association have been silent about TSA’s sinister plan to deliver unlimited doses of carcinogenic, mutagenic, heart damaging radiation to the flying public. No health studies are planned to gauge short and long-term effects of the radiation TSA will deliver to inspect our innards</blockquote>

Yves here. Now the claim is made elsewhere that the radiation level is no biggie because the dose is lower than that needed to penetrate tissue:

<blockquote>The amount of radiation used during this scan is equal to 15 minutes of exposure to natural background radiation such as the sun’s rays. One scan emits less than 10 microrem, the unit used to measure radiation. Comparably, an hour on an airplane at a high altitude exposes a passenger to 300 microrem, and the average person is exposed to 1,000 microrem of radiation over the course of a normal day.</blockquote>

Yves here. Note that even with this supposedly cheery info, the doctors asked about it were pretty cautious:

<blockquote>Dr. Albert J. Fornace Jr., an expert in molecular oncology at Georgetown University Medical Center, said such a low dose was inconsequential, even for pregnant women. “Obviously, no radiation is even better than even a very low level,” Dr. Fornace said. “But this is trivial.” But David J. Brenner, a professor of radiation oncology at Columbia University, said that even though the risk for any individual was extremely low, he would still avoid it.</blockquote>

Yves here. One concern is the almost certain lack of monitoring of the output of these machines once installed. And for frequent fliers and airline crew, I’m not sure any additional radiation, even a seemingly small amount, is a good idea. The radiation exposures that crews and passengers get is worst at high latitudes (I understand NY-London is worst than most). And they get a fair amount to begin with. The WHO gives some parameters:

<blockquote>The overall effect for flight crew and travellers is an increased radiation exposure during flights as compared to staying on the ground. Flight crew passes up to 1000 hours per year on board of flying planes, which leads to annual effective radiation doses in the range of 2 to 5 milliSievert (mSv) for most crew. Occasional travellers obtain a fraction of this value through less frequent leisure or occupational flights. In comparison, the natural background radiation amounts to 2 to 3 mSv per year at most geographical locations worldwide.</blockquote>

Yves again. And yet again, the government-private sector revolving door means that the makers of scanners have the former head of Homeland Security making their case (hat tip reader I on the Ball Patriot):

<blockquote> Since the attempted bombing of a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day, former Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff has given dozens of media interviews touting the need for the federal government to buy more full-body scanners for airports.

Michael Chertoff, former Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, speaks at the ceremonial swearing-in of Paul J. Fishman, US Attorney for the District of New Jersey at Rutgers Law School in Newark, N.J., Monday, Dec. 14, 2009.

What he has made little mention of is that the Chertoff Group, his security consulting agency, includes a client that manufactures the machines. The relationship drew attention after Chertoff disclosed it on a CNN program Wednesday, in response to a question.

An airport passengers’ rights group on Thursday criticized Chertoff, who left office less than a year ago, for using his former government credentials to advocate for a product that benefits his clients.

“Mr. Chertoff should not be allowed to abuse the trust the public has placed in him as a former public servant to privately gain from the sale of full-body scanners under the pretense that the scanners would have detected this particular type of explosive,” said Kate Hanni, founder of FlyersRights.org, which opposes the use of the scanners.

Chertoff’s advocacy for the technology dates back to his time in the Bush administration. In 2005, Homeland Security ordered the government’s first batch of the scanners — five from California-based Rapiscan Systems.</blockquote>

Yves again. Frankly, health issue or no, I find these ever escalating encroachments on my person to be unwarranted, but don’t get me started on the civil liberties issues.