Flying Safely

I have been traveling a lot lately and thought I would take a minute to explain why I don’t go through the airport security scanners.  I always ‘opt out’ and am pulled to the side for the pat down instead.  My main issue with these scanners is there is no long term cancer data.  I fly… a lot, which already exposes me to radiation; I don’t need any more exposure before I get on a plane!  Since I already received a CT scan last year with my whole gestational trophoblastic disease fiasco, I feel like I don’t need any extra radiation!  I’ve been through chemo once (which actually has a side effect of cancer) and don’t want to go through it again!

It enrages me that they would put these machines up in airports across the US without having any long term data.  Not to mention that some of the not so friendly TSA agents feel the need to tell me that these machines are completely safe – just as safe as a chest x-ray (actually these machines have much less radiation than a chest x-ray, this agent’s information was inaccurate).  I don’t need extra radiation every time I fly (that would be four times already this year and it’s only February!), thank you.  I feel like the agents try to scare me out of the pat down – like it’s so intense I’m not going to be able to handle it.  It’s as if they are trying to embarrass me for refusing their airport scanner.  Just be professional, pat me down, and let me get on with my life.  I have thought about causing a scene when they are rude to me and screaming out that there’s no long term data and they probably cause cancer and people shouldn’t be forced to go through them – but I haven’t so far, I’ve always maintained my composure.

Airport scanners use ionizing radiation to project x-ray beams onto your body.  This ionizing radiation causes DNA damage, and its effects are cumulative, so it can lead to cancer eventually.  There are also concerns about privacy that I won’t go into it.  These type of airport scanners are now banned in Europe [German protestors actually came to the airport naked to protest these machines =)] but continue to be used in the states.  It seemed like they used to alternate between the normal metal detector and these airport scanners, but lately every time I have gone through security at the airport, they have only been using the newer airport scanners.

The public has been led to believe there is little radiation in these devices but there are some concerns on the validity of what we have been told and what the true radiation amount is.  It is reported that these machines emit 0.02 microsieverts of radiation.  To compare, a transcontinental flight at 30,000 feet exposes you to 20 microsieverts of radiation.  If this is the true number or not is debatable at this time.  There seems to be a conflict of interest involved with the airport scanners since the former Homeland Security chief who promotes these scanners is also a paid consultant for the companies that sell them.  The data from the testing of these machines as well as the researchers names who worked on the studies has been keep secret.  These studies have not been peer reviewed.

In the past, we were told that CT scans are just as safe as chest x-rays.  It turns out a CT scan is equal to 500-1000 chest x-rays and the initial data was inaccurate.  Whenever technology is new, it is wise to proceed with caution and not expose millions of travelers of all ages with all types of health conditions to such machines with no long term data.

Another issue is the type of radiation.  You can’t compare natural radiation to this type of man-made radiation that uses backscatter radiation.  This radiation is absorbed into your skin and the tissue right below your skin only.  This means that since it is not spread out throughout your entire body, there is a higher concentration in that one organ- your skin.  Since the radiation concentrates on your skin, the actual radiation dose could be 20 times higher than originally estimated (because you can’t average the radiation over your entire body).  It appears that skin cancer may be a real risk of continued use of these devices.

Another scary thought is that these x-ray machines are only as accurate as the people maintaining them.  There can definitely be operator error with technology and I don’t want to be on the other side of the TSA’s radiation mistakes!

As for reducing your radiation exposure when you fly – fly at night!  The radiation is due to being in close proximity to the sun, so if you avoid flying when the sun is out you can avoid this radiation exposure.

Should we just wait around and see what health consequences will come about from using these airport scanners?!  Or should we take action?  Opt-out to protect your health!  If more people opt-out, there is no way the TSA will be able to manually pat down everyone, and these machines will most likely get switched back to the old metal detectors.

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