World's largest pilot union shuns full-body scanners
Warning cites radiation risk
The world's largest independent airline pilot association is warning its members to avoid security screening by full-body scanners out of concern the machines emit dangerous levels of radiation.
The American Pilots Association, which represents about 12,000 pilots, is recommending members instead submit to new pat-down searches, even though critics have described them as "horribly invasive" and likened them to foreplay. The recommendation is based on concerns that, contrary to claims by the US Transportation Security Administration, the types of X-rays emitted by the machines could pose serious risks that still aren't well understood.
“We are already subjected to larger amounts of radiation by flying long distances at high altitudes,” Captain Sam Mayer, who is the APA's communications committee chairman, told The Register. “While the TSA is telling us it's completely safe, that may be true for the occasional user, but we haven't seen any data yet talking about the long term cumulative effects of this over time.”
The pilots are by no means alone in voicing concern over the safety of the backscatter X-ray scanners, which are also known as advanced imaging technology. In April, radiation experts from the University of California, San Francisco, warned President Obama's science assistant that the machines pose potentially serious health risks.
Although the machines operate at relatively low beam energies of about 28keV, the radiation is delivered only to passengers' skin and underlying tissue, the scientists argued in an April 6 memorandum (PDF) to John P. Holdren, assistant to the President for science and technology. While the dose might be safe if absorbed by the entire body, directing all of it to the skin only may be dangerous.
The X-ray dose from these devices has often been compared in the media to the cosmic ray exposure inherent to airplane travel or that of a chest X-ray. However, this comparison is very misleading: both the air travel cosmic ray exposure and chest X- rays have much higher X-ray energies and the health consequences are appropriately understood in terms of the whole body volume dose. In contrast, these new airport scanners are largely depositing their energy into the skin and immediately adjacent tissue, and since this is such a small fraction of body weight/vol, possibly by one to two orders of magnitude, the real dose to the skin is now high.
The scientists also warned that travelers might face health risks from malfunctioning machines or from overzealous screeners who raise the dose in an attempt to improve a scanner's resolution.
The APA and UCSF scientists join a growing chorus of critics of backscatter devices. Last week, the Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a federal lawsuit accusing the Department of Homeland Security's TSA of unilaterally mandating the use of the machines as the primary security screening technique. By requiring government contractors to capture images of travelers' naked bodies, the policy violates a raft of federal laws, as well as Constitutional protections prohibiting unreasonable search and seizure, EPIC argued.
By the end of the year, 492 units are scheduled to be deployed in US airports, and an additional 500 units in 2011, according to EPIC. There were just 58 in May. ®
The Food and Drug Administration has published a response the the UCLA letter here.
Just say no.
If people would just say no by not submitting to the searches at the security check points, and planes started leaving nearly empty, policies would change really quickly. If we don't stand up for our rights, we will soon have none left.
But then, sheeple aren't noted for having much backbone.
A titular title
@Cameron Colley, some of these machines use "milllimeter waves" which is right in the range where they could either be microwaves or infrared. Others use X-Rays. "I also thought that they had to not dump energy into the skin if they were to penetrate it." They *don't* penetrate it, these scanners do not pick up X-Rays that penetrate through the body, but rather ones that reflect off of it.
I'm concerned about these machines too. To be honest, I think they are *probably* safe. But
1) The claim that they're safe because it's only the same amount of X-Rays as 5 minutes in the air, or 4 hours on the ground, is absolutely bogus because it's that level of exposure in 5 seconds. I mean, think about it: "Here, you can touch this object thats 5 degrees above body temp for 5 minutes right? OK, here's one that's 300 degrees above body temp, hold it for 5 seconds, don't worry it's fine, you'll get the same infrared exposure."
The exposure MIGHT be safe -- but given the TSA lying and claiming the machines would obscure people's junk, THEN lying and claiming "Well, it doesn't obscure it but the resolution's too low", THEN lying and saying images can't be recorded anyway, and on and on, of course they'd lie and say the machines are safe whether they are or not.
2) Maintenance, tuning, and operation. I agree with the doubts that anyone will ever check these instruments "in the field" to make sure they are operating up to spec (i.e. not producing excessive X-Rays, leaking them out where they shouldn't, and so on.) I just don't think these will be treated with the respect a medical X-Ray machine will. And to the commenter that says "Well, it'll just burn out". Well, no, not really. If you look at accidents with medical devices like the Therac-25, it was shooting out like 1000x the dose that'd be possibly medically useful, no problem. Designing a device so it runs it's components full bore in normal operation results in unreliable hardware and shorter service life. I don't think the machines will go Therac on anyone, but I could see the unit being calibrated a *little* high, plus leaking or scattered X-Rays adding exposure while standing in line, plus if the operator controls the scan time scanning a little longer than recommended, and maybe scanning some people multiple times (if they don't have their legs spread right or whatever) -- adding up to people getting multiple times the dose that is claimed.
Mainly, though, it's security theater and I won't stand for it. This kind of thing really is what makes the terrorists win -- a terrorist's goal is not to blow stuff up or to kill people, it's to *terrorize*, and bring about the resultant knee-jerk reactions. TSA is putty in their hands.
What's the point in screening pilots anyway?
If they wanted to bring down an airliner, all they have to do, is crash it.