Bye-Bye to the Airport TSA Backscatter Machines

Backscatter Machine

Story at-a-glance -

  • Rapiscan “backscatter” screening machines, which project x-ray beams onto your body using dangerous ionizing radiation, are being removed from U.S. airports
  • Rapiscan was unable to meet a Congressional mandate to use new software with the machines that addresses some privacy concerns, and as a result TSA terminated their contract with the company
  • The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has signed a $245-million contract with American Science and Engineering, a company that uses the same backscatter technology as Rapiscan, but has the updated software to address the privacy concerns
  • Ionizing radiation causes DNA damage that can lead to cancer; the European Commission banned x-ray body scanners that use backscatter radiation from airports back in 2011 due to health concerns
  • You always have the right to opt-out of x-ray body scanners while traveling and can choose to have a manual pat-down instead; signing up for the Global Entry program may also help you bypass security in airports

By Dr. Mercola

Rapiscan "backscatter" screening machines, which project x-ray beams onto your body using ionizing radiation, are being removed from U.S. airports.

Since ionizing radiation causes DNA damage that can lead to cancer, and its effects are cumulative, even the supposedly small levels of exposure from the backscatter machines was concerning... so much so that the European Commission banned x-ray body scanners that use backscatter radiation from airports back in 2011.

But it was privacy, not safety concerns, that prompted the U.S. removal... and despite what many media outlets are reporting, the same type of machine, made by a different manufacturer, may be showing up in Rapiscans' place.

Privacy Concerns Prompt Removal of Rapiscan Backscatter Machines

The Rapiscan backscatter machines create a detailed reflection of your body that is displayed on a monitor viewed by a remotely located TSA officer. Because the pictures are so detailed, they earned the moniker "naked body scanners" and have prompted retaliations from privacy rights activists, who liken the pictures to a "virtual strip search."

To remedy this, as part of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, all U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) body scanners were supposed to be equipped with a type of software called Automated Target Recognition (ATR), which turns the graphic images into generic outlines of a human body, by June 2012

This was later pushed back to June 2013. Rapiscan was unable to meet this Congressional mandate, and as a result TSA terminated their contract with the company.

According to the TSA blog, most of the backscatter units being removed will be replaced with millimeter wave units,1 which use electromagnetic waves to create a generic image of passengers. The millimeter wave unit looks more like a round booth (the backscatter machines look like two large blue boxes) and is subject to less controversy because it does not use dangerous ionizing radiation and therefore likely does not carry the same health risks.

However, TSA has also reportedly signed a $245-million contract with American Science and Engineering, which uses the same backscatter technology as Rapiscan for their machines, but has the updated software to address the privacy concerns. As the Alliance for Natural Health (ANH) reported:2

"In other words, while passengers may not have their privacy violated any more, they still will have their health endangered."

As for the Rapsican machines that are being removed... don't expect them to disappear entirely. The TSA reported:3

"All Rapiscan AIT units currently operational at checkpoints around the country, as well as those stored at the TSA Logistics Center, will be removed by Rapiscan at their expense and stored until they can be redeployed to other mission priorities within the government."

Did the U.S. Government Ignore Backscatter Safety Concerns?

In 1998, a panel of radiation experts convened by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to evaluate the safety of backscatter technology raised serious questions about their safety. It had long been accepted that humans should not be exposed to x-ray radiation of any kind unless medically justified.

Yet, despite concerns that even low-level exposure to the radiation could contribute to cancer, the machines were employed for use in airports – a decision made not by the FDA but by the TSA. According to a ProPublica/PBS NewsHour investigation:4

"Research suggests that anywhere from six to 100 U.S. airline passengers each year could get cancer from the machines. Still, the TSA has repeatedly defined the scanners as 'safe,' glossing over the accepted scientific view that even low doses of ionizing radiation – the kind beamed directly at the body by the X-ray scanners – increase the risk of cancer.

...Because of a regulatory Catch-22, the airport X-ray scanners have escaped the oversight required for X-ray machines used in doctors' offices and hospitals. The reason is that the scanners do not have a medical purpose, so the FDA cannot subject them to the rigorous evaluation it applies to medical devices.

Still, the FDA has limited authority to oversee some non-medical products and can set mandatory safety regulations. But the agency let the scanners fall under voluntary standards set by a nonprofit group heavily influenced by industry.

As for the TSA, it skipped a public comment period required before deploying the scanners. Then, in defending them, it relied on a small body of unpublished research to insist the machines were safe, and ignored contrary opinions from U.S. and European authorities that recommended precautions, especially for pregnant women. Finally, the manufacturer, Rapiscan Systems, unleashed an intense and sophisticated lobbying campaign, ultimately winning large contracts."

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Backscatter Radiation Levels May be Higher Than You're Being Told

A letter written by five professors5 revealed that there has not actually been any verifiable scientific testing of the safety of airport scanners – and that the levels of radiation being used are likely much higher than the public has been led to believe. These scientists believe that the high-quality images produced cannot possibly be obtained with the low levels of radiation described, and that the actual level may be 45 times higher than what the manufacturer is claiming.

The supposed "testing" of the Rapiscan Secure 1000, the most widely deployed X-ray scanner, was actually performed on a mock-up of spare parts "said to be similar to those that are parts of the Rapiscan system." In addition, none of these tests have ever been peer reviewed – the data and even the names of the researchers who carried out the tests have been kept secret from the public.

Not to mention, the former Homeland Security chief and co-author of the PATRIOT Act, Michael Chertoff, has been one of the primary promoters of full-body scanners, and is, not so ironically, a highly paid consultant for the companies that sell them... Even if we're not being lied to, 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 – including risks from human error or technological malfunction. Already, ANH reported:6

"A report from the Department of Homeland Security7 found inconsistencies in how the machines are calibrated to ensure radiation safety and image quality, and noted that not all TSA screeners have completed required radiation safety training."

What are Your Options for Safer Airport Screening?

In the United States, although the Rapiscan backscatter units are being removed, other backscatter technologies may soon take their place, so remember that you always have the right to opt-out of x-ray body scanners while traveling and can choose to have a manual pat-down instead. Personally, as a very frequent air traveler, I ALWAYS opt-out of the x-ray scanner. Remember, the European Commission has already banned scanners that use backscatter radiation, noting:8

"In order not to risk jeopardizing citizens' health and safety, only security scanners which do not use X-ray technology are added to the list of authorized methods for passenger screening at EU airports."

If you're a frequent traveler, you can also sign up for Global Entry to become a "trusted traveler." It costs $100 to join, and requires a background check and interview before you're approved, but once you're accepted you may be able to bypass security screening at airports. The interview is typically done at the airport and takes quite a while to schedule, usually a few months, so overall it will take you about 3-4 months to get this security clearance after your initial application.

Additionally, if you're concerned about radiation exposures when traveling by air, one way to reduce your radiation exposure is to fly at night. In addition to opting out of the full-body scanner. I also take 8 mg of astaxanthin every day, which is believed to profoundly limit damage from ionizing radiation.