Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Just Say No to Body Scanning

Who doesn’t hate the rigmarole of airport security, or, as the New York Times recently dubbed it, “Security Theater?”  
Take off your shoes and put them in the bin (or on the belt, depending on the airport): take off your belt; take off your jacket; pick through your purse to find the mini bottle of lotion and your lipstick and mascara and squirrel them away in a plastic sandwich baggie; put your laptop in a separate bin; put your keys and change into the little bowl; throw your carry-on onto the conveyor belt; walk your bare feet over thousands of germs; throw away your half-finished water bottle; be prepared to have your small jar of peanut butter confiscated . . . and walk through the . . . 
Don’t do it.  Do not walk through the body scanner.  You do not have to.  They cannot make you.  And it may be dangerous for your health to do so.
Irritating compliance with ridiculous rules aside, this last step in the security process is downright wrong.
There are two kinds of body scanners in airports across the country – those that use x-ray technology and those that use millimeter wave technology (and, according to a recent New York Times article, millimeter wave machines DO emit radiation, albeit less radiation than the x-ray scanners).  For decades, health care practitioners have cautioned against exposure to unnecessary x-rays.  You even get a little lead-apron to wear when you have to have dental x-rays.  So, why is it now okay to expose thousands of travelers to unnecessary radiation all for the sake of “security?”  Even if those levels are labeled “low” and “safe,” why risk it?  
European, American and Australian studies are mixed about the safety of body scanners.  Plainly, they are just too new to have accurate long-term data about their safety.  In fact, TSA has just recently admitted that the x-ray scanners are probably not safe and are pulling them from many airports in favor of the millimeter scanners (the ones with the “low” radiation).  But, why is low radiation considered safe?  What about people who travel frequently and are exposed often to this “safe” radiation?  Logic would have it that even the millimeter scanners may not be the best for people’s health.
Recently, I flew out of O’Hare and faced the usual ordeal of Security Theater.  Instead of encountering the ire of security staff when I opted out of going through the scanner (they then have to do a pat down instead), I actually got sympathy from the TSA workers.  The first person I had to deal with told me, “I don’t blame you.  I won’t go through those things either.”  The second person, the woman who was assigned to do my pat down said, “Have you done this before?”  When I nodded, she said.  “Yeah, I bypass all the time myself.”
So, go ahead and exert your right not to be scanned.  Opt for the pat down, even if it takes a little longer and isn’t exactly the most pleasant experience in the world.  If entire lines of passengers refuse to be corralled through the scanner, perhaps TSA will come up with saner – and safer – methods of ensuring security.  
Considering how few terrorists are caught, despite Security Theater, isn’t it unconscionable to expose thousands of travelers to health-damaging radiation – “just in case?”


  1. I always have to have the pat down because my double knee replacements trigger the alarm. But it never occurred to me simply to bypass the scanner en route to the pat down! Thanks for the reminder that I can do this. I get enough health-related (medically necessary) radiation as it is.