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Airport body scanners: a flash in the pants?

Friday 14 January, 2011 by Cairín

Recent fanfare in the media has gotten everyone in a flutter about full-body, graphic-image x-ray scanners that are set to commence creeping in on our personal privacy at an airport near you soon.

The new ‘naked' scanners are designed to show people concealing weapons – but they will show a lot more than that! The scanners use a low energy x-ray to reveal any objects, metal or otherwise, under a person's clothing, including body features.

But it's not just the idea of flashing your private parts at check-in that's concerning many travellers, it's the recent publicity about the risk of developing cancer through exposure from these devices. 

This has amplified recently ahead of the planned rollout of the scanners in Australia this year as part of the Federal Government's drive to improve airport security.

So the question is, are these concerns justified? What is the likelihood of developing cancer from these scanners? 

The short answer is: very unlikely.

The longer more detailed answer is as follows:

The scanners used in airports are what are known as ‘backscatter systems', which use low intensity x-rays to scan the body. The x-rays do not penetrate the body but bounce off the skin and are then captured by detectors to create images.

The amount of radiation you receive from one of these scanners is very small.

To give you an idea of how small, consider the following:

  • A  person would have to undergo 1000–2000 backscatter scans before receiving a dose equivalent to a medical chest x-ray.
  • You would need to go through the scanner 100–200 times before you've reached the amount you receive in a day due to natural background radiation.

Flying itself increases exposure to ionising radiation through cosmic rays and the additional radiation. You would need to go through the scanner 40–80 times before you've reached the same amount of radiation you receive during a flight. [1]

For those frequent flyers – you would need to have 2500–5000 scans per year to reach what US nuclear authorities recommend as an annual limit on radiation from a single source.

According to our source at ARPANSA (Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency) before these scanners can be implemented in Australia, it will be necessary that a convincing case justifying their use is made and the devices comply with current licensing arrangements. The Australian Government's radiation protection philosophy is based upon the premise that no radiation exposure is justified unless it produces a positive net benefit and that the magnitude of dose received, the number of people exposed and the likelihood of unnecessary exposures are kept as low as reasonably achievable.

Moreover, when they are introduced in Australia they will need to be used within the established radiation protection framework.

ARPANSA states that considering the low radiation doses delivered by these machines, the increase in the incidence of cancer from the use of these scanners will be extremely low.

Now if only you could be sure about the emissions coming from the person sitting next to you on your next international flight...

If you want to flesh out your knowledge on the subject, go to http://www.arpansa.gov.au/RadiationProtection/Factsheets/is_AirportScreening.cfm

British Medical Journal, 6 March 2010, volume 340

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