In the wake of the recent incident on a Northwest/Delta flight over the holidays, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has been working to develop more comprehensive security scanners.
The hope is that these enhanced screenings will be able to detect explosives smuggled on the bodies of passengers.
To date, the TSA has deployed two types of scanning systems:
Millimeter wave technology, which uses low-level radio waves in the millimeter wave spectrum. Two rotating antennae cover the passenger from head to toe with low-level RF energy. The scan takes about 40 seconds, and produces a fuzzy negative-like image that will reveal anything that could be stashed under the passenger's clothes.
Backscatter technology, which uses extremely weak X-rays delivering less than 10 microRem of radiation per scan ─ the radiation equivalent one receives inside an aircraft flying for two minutes at 30,000 feet. The image created from the backscatter scan is said to look more like a chalk etching.
Aside from personal privacy concerns, the main objection to scanners that use radiation is the level of radiation to which they may expose passengers and airline employees.
Pilots and other flight crew are already at a higher risk for leukemia and other types of cancer due to the higher levels of radiation they are exposed to in-flight. Some are concerned that these new full-body scanners could further increase that risk.
Radiation-related health risks from the scanners are low when it comes to most individuals, but could be of concern to airline crew members, frequent fliers, pregnant women and infants, the chronically ill and immune-suppressed passengers.
Although there is no concrete evidence that the radiation from these scanners will have negative effects, as a physician I would still recommend exposing citizens to as little radiation as possible, outside of necessary medical procedures.
With billions of people potentially being scanned every year, regardless of their personal risk factors when it comes to radiation exposure, and with the producers of radioactive ionizing scanners unwilling to sign a guarantee of their long-term safety, I support considering other solutions for airline security.
One such solution that has been suggested is the implementation of a "registered traveler" program, wherein citizens can opt to register as "trusted passengers," a process that would require they be given similar extensive background checks as airline employees.
If approved, they could receive a "trusted passenger" card which would allow them to travel through the security lines with only our current standard level of screening. Anyone not on the "registered traveler" list would still be subject to the full body scans.
Another solution is simply to stick with the millimeter wavelength imaging machines, which do not use the same harmful ionizing radiation.
Whatever solution the TSA comes up with, we can be sure that over the coming months, our airport screening process will begin to look a bit different. My advice (while it may not be medical in nature) is to get used to arriving at the airport a bit earlier, to compensate for longer, slower security lines.
Dr. Kronhaus hosts Good Day Health, a nationally syndicated weekend radio show heard on more than 150 stations across the country, and is featured Monday - Friday in the "Daily Dose" segment on Doug Stephan's Good Day, heard on more than 300 stations in morning drive. You can sign up for his free e-newsletter here.
Health risk of airport security scanners questioned