Airport Body Scans Trigger Travel Angst

As the White House reviews passenger-screening techniques, holiday travelers aren't quite sure what to expect at the airport this week.

November 22, 2010

Travelers should plan for extra time to get through airport security, though not everyone will experience a full body scan.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Travelers across the country are wondering if this year's holiday travel season will be especially challenging, thanks to the controversy raised by rigid Transportation Security Administration screening techniques aimed at keeping bombs off of passenger airlines. Amid all the reports of probing pat downs of children, a nun, and a bladder cancer survivor with a urostomy bag (TSA workers allegedly broke the bag, leaving the man soaked in urine), a GOP lawmaker made a short speech on the House floor claiming that the screening violates citizens' Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. And an Internet campaign aims to launch a passenger-led revolt to opt out of the airport screenings on Thanksgiving Eve, arguably the busiest airline travel day of the year.


Appearing on the Today Show on Monday, TSA Chief John Pistole urged travelers to resist calls to boycott airport body scans as National Opt Out Day, the call to opt out of the body scans on travel-heavy Thanksgiving Eve, garners national attention.

It's not just the notorious pat downs that are causing a fuss. The airport security measures, while they may have public safety in mind, have come under fire due to the possible health risk of the new radiation-emitting backscatter body scan machines.

The screenings also hint notes of scandal. A Florida congressman is pushing for busy airports to get rid of TSA agents and instead bring in private security contractors. But wait! The plot thickens…that same rep also receives large campaign contributions from private airport-security firms, according to the Associated Press.

Sure, TSA agents are getting their share of bad press, but the probing pat downs haven't been peaches and cream for them, either, according to the TSA agents' union. MSNBC reported Monday that a passenger upset with the new procedures punched an airport screener in the face last week. Other workers have reported being harassed as passengers hiss scathing remarks like "Pervert!" or "Molester!" at airport-security workers. (Do we need to point out that the majority of TSA agents are probably just doing their job and not molesting anybody?)

THE DETAILS: On Monday, the White House announced it is reviewing TSA's screening procedures, but it's unlikely that screening guidelines will change in time for the holiday travel crush.

Even if airport screening procedures stay the same, it is important to note that not everyone is asked to go through airport scanners, although everyone will likely go through metal detectors (that's standard procedure). TSA did not respond to questions by deadline Monday, but an airport-travel expert quoted in other reports estimates that up to 20 percent of holiday travelers will be asked to partake in the 10-second scans. If just a small percent of those asked to go through the airport body scans say no and opt for the much more time-consuming pat downs, delays could be significant.

WHAT IT MEANS: While the Food and Drug Administration and TSA say the scanners are safe, some doctors and public-health officials aren't so sure. And pilots are worried about excess radiation, too, although they are no longer required to go through the pat downs or the airport body scans. (There are two types of airport scanners: backscatter devices, which use weak X-ray technology and are raising concerns among some doctors, pilots, and health-conscious travelers, and millimeter wave body scanners, which are not causing much of a public-health uproar.)

In April, a group of radiation experts from the University of California–San Francisco sent a letter to presidential advisor John Holdren outlying concerns with the backscatter airport body scan devices, particularly pointing out possible skin cancer risks. Although the low beam energies are being touted as safe, the doctors who authored the letter say that because the majority of the X-ray energy is delivered to the skin, it could increase skin cancer risk. The authors go on to say that colleagues, dermatologists, and cancer experts believe the use of backscatter X-ray airport body scans is a cause for concern, particularly among travelers 65 and older, because their skin can't protect against radiation as well. Others at risk, they say, include a fraction of the female population who face an increased breast cancer risk due to a problem with DNA repair mechanisms and immunocompromised travelers, such as cancer patients or people living with HIV. The letter also criticizes lack of risk evaluation on pregnant women, small children, and the effects on the cornea and thymus, while noting that men's sperm could be damaged due to the proximity of the testicles to the skin.

Keep this in mind if you're traveling by plane this week:

• Not all airports have the scanners. If you're traveling by air this holiday season, you may be asked to endure an airport body scan (either the weak X-ray-like backscatter, or the nonionizing radiation millimeter wave) if you're using one of the following airports. As always, plan on arriving plenty early, wherever you're flying from. Particularly if it looks like lots of travelers are boycotting the scans and backing up security lines.

U.S. airports that currently have advanced imaging technology:

• Albuquerque International Sunport Airport
• Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport
• Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport
• Boston Logan International
• Bush Houston Intercontinental Airport
• Boise Airport
• Bradley International Airport
• Brownsville
• Buffalo Niagara International Airport
• Charlotte Douglas International
• Chicago O'Hare International
• Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International
• Cleveland International Airport
• Corpus Christi Airport
• Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport
• Denver International Airport
• Detroit Metro Airport
• Dulles International Airport
• El Paso International Airport
• Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International
• Fort Wayne International Airport
• Fresno Airport
• Gulfport International Airport
• Grand Rapids Airport
• Harrisburg International Airport
• Harlingen/Valley International Airport
• Honolulu International Airport
• Indianapolis International Airport
• Jacksonville International Airport
• John F. Kennedy International Airport

List continued on next page

• Kansas City International
• LaGuardia International Airport
• Lambert/St. Louis International Airport
• Laredo International Airport
• Lihue Airport
• Los Angeles International
• Luis Munoz Marin International Airport
• McAllen Miller Airport
• McCarran International Airport
• Memphis International Airport
• Miami International Airport
• General Mitchell Milwaukee International Airport
• Mineta San José International
• Minneapolis/St.Paul International Airport
• Nashville International Airport
• Newark Liberty International Airport
• Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport
• Oakland International Airport
• Omaha Eppley Field Airport
• Orlando International Airport
• Palm Beach International Airport
• Philadelphia International Airport
• Phoenix International Airport
• Pittsburgh International Airport
• Port Columbus International
• Raleigh-Durham International Airport
• Richmond International Airport
• Rochester International Airport
• Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport
• Salt Lake City International Airport
• San Antonio International Airport
• San Diego International Airport
• San Francisco International Airport
• Seattle–Tacoma International Airport
• Spokane International Airport
• T.F. Green Airport
• Tampa International Airport
• Tulsa International Airport

Airports receiving imaging technology "soon," according to TSA:

• Chicago Midway International Airport
• Houston William P. Hobby Airport
• Saipan International Airport

• Know your rights. You do not legally have to go through the airport body scan machines, but if you say no, be prepared for what is being described as a pretty invasive pat down that includes feeling around traveler's genital areas. Keep in mind that you can ask for a private pat down with one of your travel companions present. And hey, if you don't like that, there's always the train, which, by the way, is generally considered a more ecofriendly ride, too.

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