Health Risks of Full Body Scanners Questioned Following Report

Ever since Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's attempt to blow up a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day, there has been increased attention given to full-body imaging scanners. While some tout that the machines can prevent such potentially life-threatening incidents from happening again; others have denounced the machines as an infringement on citizen's right to privacy. Now, concerns are growing that the scanners may actually pose a health risk by exposing passengers to radiation.A report by the Inter-Agency Committee on Radiation Safety, which includes the European Commission, International Atomic Energy Agency, Nuclear Energy Agency and the World Health Organization, said that the government must inform air passengers about any health risks that the screenings pose, including the possible exposure to higher radiation levels, Bloomberg reported.

The scanners are already available in 19 airports in the U.S. and more are due to be rolled out. President Barack Obama recently approved the deployment of roughly 450 full body scanners by the end of year, about 10 times the number that are currently in use. The scanners are also being rolled out in the U.K. and across Europe.

Unnecessary Exposure?

The radiation emitted from full body-scanning machines, which produce detailed information about what people may or may not be hiding underneath their clothing, is small. In fact, the exposure is about the same amount a person receives during two minutes of flight time, according to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Nevertheless, the inter-Agency Committee's report says pregnant women and small children should not be scanned.

For its part, the TSA says advanced imaging technology is completely safe. "Recognized standards bodies have known standards on health and safety for this type of equipment," the agency said in a statement. "TSA complies with those national health and safety standards."

Yet, some well-informed experts remain skeptical of the scanner's safety, as well as its usefulness.

"A thorough body frisk would do the same sort of thing, if it is done properly, and of course it costs a lot less," Norman Shanks, a former head of security for the British Airports Authority, told the Christian Science Monitor.

Officials from OSI Systems Inc. (OSIS) and L-3 Communications Holdings Inc. (LLL), which manufacture the machines, did not respond to requests for comment. L-3 has provided 40 scanners deployed by the TSA. According to the Wall Street Journal, the government tested L-3's machines against devices made by OSI Systems' Rapiscan in October and decided it would buy 150 new machines from Rapiscan.

Safety Versus Privacy

A recent USA Today/Gallup poll found that 78% of people supported the use of full body scanners in U.S. airports. With the CIA and FBI issuing an unprecedented warning of an imminent terrorist attack yesterday, that percentage may be even higher now.

Yet, use of the machines still outrage members of some privacy groups. Civil libertarians, for example, recently complained to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano that the government's increased use of the machines would capture "naked photographs of millions of American air travelers suspected of no wrongdoing."

Critics also are not buying the TSA's claims that the scanners cannot send or store images. As American Civil Liberties Union Legislative Counsel Chris Calabrese said, officials will have to save images that uncover evidence of a crime such as drug smuggling. And if these images are saved, there will need to be some sort of labeling system to sort them out. He also points out that "it is not at all clear that they would have detected the explosives used in the Christmas Day incident."

To critics like Calabrese, this technology raises many disturbing questions, particularly since it will capture images of children.

"We as Americans have to draw a line somewhere," he says. But will drawing that line mean we will be less safe?

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