The government, though, might be engaging in a little myth-making of its own by insisting that the new airport imaging machines that use X-rays are unequivocally safe for all passengers and airport personnel passing through dozens or even hundreds of times a year. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says the new device, known as a backscatter X-ray machine, meets the standard of a “general use” X-ray machine, meaning that a person would have to have 1,000 scans a year before approaching the maximum allowable radiation dose for the general public.
But some researchers who study radiation’s health effects beg to differ. Last April, four imaging experts from the University of California, San Francisco sent a letter of concern to President Obama’s science and technology advisor, John Holdren, questioning, “the extent to which the safety of this scanning device has been adequately demonstrated,” they wrote. They added that it might deliver a concentrated dose of radiation to the skin—necessary to penetrate clothes—that could be “dangerously high,” possibly increasing the risk of skin cancer and other cancers in susceptible individuals. They called for an independent panel of experts to review all the risk data including whether the scanners pose a higher risk to certain folks like pregnant women, seniors, children, and teens.
The fact is, we don’t know what we’re getting ourselves into with these scanners. Even if the scanners were safe, I don’t feel comfortable with the idea that someone somewhere whom isn’t my wife can look at me naked. I don’t completely trust that the TSA is doing everything they say they are doing either (namely disabling the save/print/network functions), so even if they were safe, I wouldn’t want to walk through the machines anyway.
At least with a patdown–even the “enhanced” ones–I know what I’m getting (molested) and how safe it is.