Airport Scanner Safety: What Do Doctors Do?

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CNN’s senior medical correspondent, Elizabeth Cohen, was traveling a few months ago when she noticed a man asking to opt out of the full-body scan at the airport security checkpoint, and getting a manual pat-down instead. In the unabashedly curious way of reporters, Cohen asked the man why.

Turns out, he was concerned about excess radiation exposure and he happened to be a surgical oncology fellow at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center — one of the world’s leading cancer hospitals. Cohen opted for the pat-down too.

(More on Radiation and Kids: X-Rays, CT Scans Are Increasingly Part of Childhood)

Back at home, Cohen decided to survey doctors she knew to find out the medical experts’ personal take on the radiation risk of backscatter X-ray scanners. Do they go through the scanners themselves? “All these doctors are smart people with access to the same scientific data, and yet made very different choices,” she wrote in her “Empowered Patient” column.

The choices, yes or no, fell into two basic camps. The doctors who stepped through the scans felt that the amount of radiation emitted by the machines was so minimal — about as much as you’d get from flying in a plane for two minutes — that it didn’t pose a serious risk.

Of course, that requires faith in the safety data provided by manufacturers and trust in TSA workers to properly maintain the scanners. One radiation expert from Columbia University whom Cohen interviewed thinks the radiation exposure from the security scan is 10 times the manufacturer-listed rate, but even that level is so low, he said, he goes through the scanners anyway.

(More on Japan’s Next Nightmare: Health Problems from Radiation Exposure)

The doctors who opted out of the scans typically did so because they were either wary of the manufacturer data or they believed that no amount of excess radiation was too small not to be avoided. The cancer risk of radiation exposure is cumulative over a lifetime, so why take the risk?

Cohen wrote:

Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, takes a pat-down instead of going through a scanner when he travels. He says he’s concerned about whether the machines are calibrated and inspected properly.

USA Today did a piece on how badly TSA maintained their X-ray equipment for carry-on bags, and this gave me little confidence,” he wrote to me in an e-mail.

And as Dr. Dong Kim, chair of the department of neurosurgery at the University of Texas Medical School and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ surgeon, explained to Cohen, radiation levels don’t have to be dramatic — like those being faced by the nuclear plant workers in Japan — to have an effect: “There is really no absolutely safe dose of radiation,” he said. “Each exposure is additive, and there is no need to incur any extra radiation when there is an alternative.”

Related Links:

5 Easy Ways to Reduce Your Cell-Phone Radiation Exposure

Radiation May Be a Greater Cancer Risk for Adults Than Doctors Thought

Do Dental Scans Put Your Child at Risk of Cancer?