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Each Time You Are Exposed to Backscatter X-Ray Scan, You Boost Your Risk of Cancer

April 19, 2011 | 227,326 views
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Airport Security ScanThe Transportation Security Administration (TSA) claims that backscatter scans are safe. But how do medical professionals personally feel about it?

Many doctors don't opt out of the scans. Dr. Drew Pinsky calls the amount of radiation "inconsequential." However, some researchers question whether the manufacturers' measurements are valid -- the exposure to radiation may actually be 10 times more than what the manufacturers claim.

And Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, takes a pat-down instead of going through a scanner when he travels. Brawley's deputy, Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, has the same opinion.

According to CNN:

"Lichtenfeld says it doesn't necessarily give him great comfort that the TSA says the scans are safe. 'I can still remember getting my feet radiated as a child when I went to the shoe store and they had a machine which could see how my foot fit in the new shoes,' he says. 'We were told then that they were safe, and they were not.'"


Dr. Mercola's Comments:

The issues associated with the use of so-called "naked body scanners" at airport security checks across the US and other countries have not let up, although most mainstream media have dropped the topic.

For example, Governor Jesse Ventura filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) back in January, claiming the advanced pat-downs violated his privacy, his 4th Amendment right, and legally meet 'the definition for an unlawful sexual assault'."

Although these privacy violations are indeed troublesome, from my perspective as a physician, the issue of whether or not the "backscatter" scanners (which use ionizing radiation) are in fact safe takes precedence. And there are still gaping holes where solid scientific data should be.

Safety Studies Still Lacking… Why?

For starters, although this screening method was mandated back in February of 2009, no one has as of yet conducted any real safety studies—a fact recently pointed out by John Sedat, a biochemistry and biophysics professor, in an interview with WIRED magazine:

"[T]he airport scanners penetrate to about skin level. That means there is a high concentration of radiation on a single organ — the skin — which was not accounted for in the Johns Hopkins report," Sedat said.

"The "correct way" to test any such technology is to use mice and appropriate tissue-culture cells and see if there is a biological response. That kind of stuff has never been done," he said."

The Johns Hopkins report he's referring to was done by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and published in October 2009. It's still the leading and most often-cited study concluding that the scanners are medically safe.

But there are still plenty of disagreements within the scientific and medical community about the veracity of these claims. And the fact that no biological tests have been performed is certainly disconcerting when you consider that these machines have now been deployed for two years.

Personally, as a very frequent air traveler, I ALWAYS opt out of the scanner. Because even if the radiation dose is minute (and that's IF), I'm not willing to risk my health by exposing my entire body to minute doses on a regular basis.

Please OPT OUT

If you ever see me in an airport security line you can be darn sure you will not see me go through this new scanner.  So follow my lead and opt out.

If we can have enough people objecting to this new technology we can get them to stop this procedure, as it is far too man-power intensive for them to manually inspect everyone with the enhanced pat down.

Last year, when massive numbers of people were planning on opting out in protest, they shut all the scanners off that day and ran people through the older ones.  My guess is that is the inevitable result if 10 percent of us choose to opt out.  So please remember you CAN make a difference.

TSA Bungles Safety Tests

Another recent issue that seriously undermined the TSA's "guarantees" is the apparent inability of TSA safety testers to perform basic math…

Last month, WIRED Magazine discussed the TSA's bungled radiation emissions tests, which "produced dramatically higher-than-expected results." It was determined that the abnormally high results were nothing more than a "calculation error" on the part of the testers. But it just goes to show how easily mistakes can happen. For example, are they absolutely sure the people calibrating the machines can add and subtract properly, if needed?

In response to the bungled test results, the Association for Airline Passenger Rights is urging the government to shut the machines down until the results from the retesting are complete.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) is also trying to get a federal appeals court to put a stop to their use until further health studies have been conducted.

It would certainly be the prudent thing to do, because the evidence is quite clear that radiation exposure has a cumulative effect.

The featured CNN article quotes Dr. Dong Kim (chair of the department of neurosurgery at the University of Texas Medical School and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' neurosurgeon) as saying:

"There is really no absolutely safe dose of radiation… Each exposure is additive, and there is no need to incur any extra radiation when there is an alternative."

I completely agree.

Common sense would dictate that we need to proceed with caution and not expose millions of travelers of all ages, and with any number of medical conditions, to unknown risks. And if Homeland Security won't do it, you can still take matters into your own hands and simply opt out. Yes, you'll have to go through a potentially embarrassing pat down, but for most, depending on your situation, this is probably the lesser of the two evils.

Looking at history, we see false assurances of safety again and again. For example, four decades ago the American College of Radiology assured us that CT scans were completely safe and that the radiation equaled one chest x-ray.

Today we know that one CT scan is equal to about 1,000 chest x-rays!

Errors of the past such as this should indeed serve as cautionary tales when making safety claims for brand new technologies. How many times will a belated "oops!" suffice before we demand the return of the precautionary principle?

The fact of the matter is:

  1. We still have a lot to learn about the health impact of different technologies
  2. Any time you use technology,  malfunctions can occur, and
  3. X-ray machines are only as accurate as the people maintaining them

Do Back-Scatter Scanners Cause Cancer?

As summarized by WeWontFly.com:

"Backscatter X-ray uses ionizing radiation, a known cumulative health hazard, to produce images of passengers' bodies. Children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those with defective DNA repair mechanisms are considered to be especially susceptible to the type of DNA damage caused by ionizing radiation.

Also at high risk are those who have had, or currently have, skin cancer.

Ionizing radiation's effects are cumulative, meaning that each time you are exposed you are adding to your risk of developing cancer. Since the dosage of radiation from the backscatter X-ray machines is absorbed almost entirely by the skin and tissue directly under the skin, averaging the dose over the whole body gives an inaccurate picture of the actual harm."

Scientists from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) have echoed these concerns. Because the radiation beam from the scanners concentrates on your skin, researchers believe the dose may be up to 20 times higher than is being estimated.

Skin cancer is one potential outcome of such exposure.

Dr. Jane M. Orient, M.D. has also brought up this concern. In an article for the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS), she details what the medical community considers to be the REAL health hazard of full-body scanners using low-energy backscatter technology.

Dr. Orient explains:

"They use an ingenious low-energy backscatter technique, which is apparently wonderful for identifying explosives in cargo. Since the radiation doesn't penetrate far, it wouldn't affect an unborn baby. But it does concentrate the dose in the skin.

Some scientists warn that this effect has not been properly studied, and one nuclear medicine expert told me that he is going to opt out of the scan. I think this much is clear: if you had a deadly disease, and the scanner were an FDA-regulated device that might save your life, your doctor wouldn't be allowed to use it, because of inadequate study."

Dr. Russell Blaylock has also published his viewpoints on this issue, warning that skin cancer is a very real health risk of these machines.

How Ionizing Radiation Damages Your Cells

Ionizing radiation creates charged ions by displacing electrons in atoms, even without heat. Examples are radiation emitted from radioactive substances in rocks and soil, cosmic rays of the sun, and radiation from man-made technology such as x-ray machines, power stations, and nuclear reactors.

A host of epidemiological studies have strongly suggested that x-rays and other ionizing radiation are a cause of many types of human cancer. X-rays may even be responsible for most of the deaths from cancer and ischemic heart disease, according to John Gofman, MD, PhD, a professor at U. C. Berkeley and one of the leading experts in the world.

Ionizing radiation is a uniquely potent mutagen due to its ability to wreak havoc upon your cells and their genetic code. Your cells are unable to repair the very complex genetic damage done by x-rays. Some of the mutated cells die, but others do not, and the cells that go on living have a proliferative advantage -- giving rise to the most aggressive cancers.

Unlike some other mutagens, x-rays have access to the genetic molecules of every one of your internal organs, if the organ is within range of the x-ray beam. Even a single high-speed, high-energy electron, set into motion by an x-ray photon, can bounce around and cause you irreparable damage.

That is why there is no safe dose of x-rays.

Further, the effects of radiation are cumulative, which means that every time you walk through an airport scanner, you're adding to your lifetime exposure. If you fly frequently or you're exposed to other forms of radiation through CT scans, mammograms and other medical procedures, your exposure could reach significant levels.

Maintaining Perspective…

All of that said, it's still important to place this radiation exposure risk in its proper perspective.

According to reported numbers, an airport x-ray scanner produces .02 microsieverts of radiation. However, you're also exposed to ambient ionizing radiation each time you fly. In fact on a typical transcontinental flight at 30,000 feet you will be exposed to 20 microsieverts of radiation—1,000 times more than the scan. With that in mind, it's not surprising that many, including doctors, don't feel it warrants any concern.

Still, this calculation of risk is based on the reported radiation levels. If we are being lied to then many will be exposing themselves to a health risk they might otherwise reconsider…

One way to reduce your air travel radiation by 99 percent is to fly at night. Just as it is impossible to get a suntan at night, you will avoid virtually all of the radiation when you fly after sunset.

That's why I try to fly exclusively at night now, or as far away from noon as practically possible—in addition to opting out of the full-body scanner. I also take 2 mg of astaxanthin every day, which is believed to radically limit damage from ionizing radiation.

Follow the Money—Who Stands to Gain Financially from Full-Body Scanners?

As in so many other instances, our legal and civil rights system is being willfully manipulated and trampled, and our health is put at risk, all for the sake of private and corporate profits.

In this case, the former homeland security chief and co-author of the PATRIOT act, Michael Chertoff, is now the primary promoter of full-body scanners, and is a paid consultant for the companies that sell them!

As Dr. Orient said in her AAPS article:

"… if your doctor had an ownership interest in the scanner, he might go to federal prison for referring you for a scan. These anti-kickback laws, however, do not apply to the influential government cronies who stand to make a fortune from the scanners."

The mandate to use these scanners is yet another blatant conflict of interest that erodes personal freedom in the name of "security" and places corporate profits ahead of public health.

What Can You Do if You're Planning to Fly?

Personally, I believe the most significant risk you have when flying is due to the ionizing radiation you're exposed to at high altitude during the mid-day sun. However, I'm still not willing to gamble with my health when it comes to the scanners, especially since I'm a frequent flyer, so I always opt out—and recommend you do the same.

Additionally, to protect yourself from the radiation you're exposed to on each flight, I recommend flying at night, or at least avoid flying between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. By taking a night flight, you can significantly reduce your radiation risk

You can also ground yourself with some grounding devises. I will be sharing much more about this new technology later this year.

If you are unable to fly at night for whatever reason the next best solution I have found is to use astaxanthin. It's the most potent lipid-soluble free radical antioxidant I know of, which has been shown to help eliminate the risk of cataracts and age-related macular degeneration. It also helps decrease the likelihood of sunburn. 

The typical dose is 2 mg, but the key is that it needs to be taken daily for about three weeks before your radiation exposure.

This is not only helpful for exposure to high-altitude radiation but any radiation from the airport scanner or even CT scans, which are 10,000 times stronger.

If you opt for the pat-down, I also suggest you keep hygiene in mind. According to eye-witnesses, TSA agents do not routinely change gloves between each passenger… So, the obvious remedy would be to insist the agent puts on a fresh pair of gloves before touching you and your child.

As for the humiliation factor that these enhanced TSA security checks present, I would encourage you to contact your local government officials and state representatives, or join the "We Won't Fly" campaign. The campaign site also lists 24 additional ways you can make your voice heard on this issue.

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