Airport Body Scanners and Radiation – Your Questions Answered

Walking through airport scanners, aka “advanced imaging technology,” seems like a no-brainer, right? The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) says their safe and millions of adult travelers walk through them every year- but does that actually make them safe?

The reality is that airport scanners do, indeed, expose you to radiation; and wherever there is radiation, there is a need to be cautious. Let’s face it, as our holiday post attested, there are all kinds of dangerous ways the threats of radioactive materials have been underestimated over the years -especially when it came to new products and services.

Please Note: You absolutely never have to submit yourself to any airport’s backscatter X-ray tunnels. All you have to do is say you would like to have a manual pat-down. This will delay you a few minutes or so, but can be well worth it if you are worried about the long-term health determinants of low-grade radiation exposure. The pat-down is conducted by a trained, TSA professional of your same gender, and takes only a minute or two.


Backscatter X-Ray Tunnels Explained

First, let’s talk about how the X-Ray tunnels actually work. The idea of a “whole body” tunnel scanner is to provide an image of a person’s body – sans clothing – so that any metal or potentially hidden security threats will be exposed on the TSA checker’s screen.

One of the easiest and cheapest ways to do this is to use mild X-rays that bounce off the person’s body and show anything that is attached to the body. The bulk of the machines employed in U.S. airports use low-grade backscatter radiation to reveal objects on the surface of the body. There are also tunnels that use a higher-energy X-rays to verify whether or not there are potential weapons stored inside the body.

A third option are millimeter wave scanners, which come in two forms: the first reads radioactive waves coming off the body, the second emits low-frequency radio waves to provide an image of the body. These are the least -commonly used scanners in U.S. airports and the science of their safety is still in question.

Are Airport Backscatter X-Ray Tunnels Dangerous?

Whenever your body is exposed to X-rays, it absorbs radioactive energy. The amount of energy it absorbs is expressed in sieverts (Sv). It’s always good to know your radiation limits because this can help you to determine if and when it makes sense to receive or decline a medical or dental X-ray, a particular medical treatment, a potential job or career or – even whether you may opt to forgo the airport scanner in lieu of a manual pat-down.

To quote

Transmission scanners that see into the body use higher energy X-rays than Backscatter scanner that only view the surface and as a result the dose absorbed is 10 times greater. A single scan is roughly the equivalent of one hour of background radiation at ground level, or 10 minutes at cruising altitude in an airplane. In the worst case scenario, of a person being scanned three times a day every working day throughout the year, a backscatter scanner would contribute 0,3 millisievert to their annual dose. A transmission scanner, however, would contribute 3 millisievert and exceed the tolerable limit. In practice, most passengers would not be exposed so frequently to these scanners. This may however be a concern for airline crew or people who fly very frequently.

Keep in mind, however, that while radiation exposure limits are calculated for the general population, you don’t really know whether or not you may be more susceptible than others to radioactive exposure. Also, while we know that radiation causes cancer, the exact causes of cancer in general still remain a bit of a mystery. Most health experts would agree that cancers can arise from a single cause (genetics, for example) or there may be a series of exposures or a certain tipping point caused by multiple environmental exposures that cause cancer cells to begin multiplying.

It’s worth noting that backscatter X-ray scanners are still prohibited in the European Union because the EU population wants to see further testing and evaluate the data from longer-term studies before employing them as a general rule and exposing their citizens to potentially harmful radiation.

When it comes right down to it, walking through an TSA body scanner is a personal choice. Those who haven’t experienced much radiation exposure in their lifetime, are not employed in a job that exposes them to radiation and who don’t fly very often are probably safe from harmful side effects. On the flip side, there are many doctor and healthcare professionals who opt to skip the X-ray scanner in lieu of the manual pat-down option, claiming they’d rather be safe than sorry.

In our line of work, we opt for the latter option as well. We feel exposure should be limited whenever possible.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Get industry updates and new blogs straight to your inbox.