Airport X-ray Scanners Cause Cancer Concern

Cancer risks not included in airport xray scanner evaluation

November 3, 2011 / Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

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(dailyRx News) Airport X-ray scanners have been a hotbed of controversy in terms of personal privacy. It turns out that the U.S. Government neglected to evaluate cancer risks of these scanners.

A new report by ProPublica and PBS NewsHour has detailed how these X-ray scanners that the United States government want to have in all airports did not get properly checked for any possible links to cancer. While the risk is uncertain, it is still cause for concern and may lead to future studies.

"If you are pregnant, ask your doctor about airport X-ray scanners."

The simple reason why airport X-ray scanners became necessary was due to concerns about security and terrorism. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was formed and soon deemed these full-body scanners as necessary for counter-terrorism measures.They come in two forms - an X-ray scanner and a device that uses low-energy radio waves.

There are 250 X-ray scanners in airports, and none of them have been tested for cancer risks.

The reason these X-ray scanners have not undergone strict testing by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is because they are not being used for medical purposes and therefore do not fall under FDA regulation. They were approved by the TSA and deemed safe to use due to the dose of the radiation being so small.

Even as early as 1998, one of the first incarnations of the airport X-ray scanner - Secure 1000 - had raised concerns by medical professionals. For them, it was a clear matter of violating an old rule stating that X-rays should not be used unless there was a specific medical purpose. Previously, states regulated the use of X-rays only for medical purposes, and even after 9/11, X-rays were still approved for medical use only.

According to this report, there are numerous scientific studies about X-rays and their possible risks, including possible links to cancer. The TSA's basis for calling these scanners safe are from unpublished reports that do not appear in peer-reviewed journals.

The National Academy of Sciences, in 2006, determined a linear link between radiation and cancer. Any level of radiation has some impact on increasing the risk of cancer - the higher the level, the greater the risk. There are also concerns about using these scanners on pregnant women.

The risk of these X-ray scanners are uncertain. But Rebecca Smith-Bindman, a radiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, thinks these scanners could lead to an additional six cancers over the course of a lifetime for the nearly 100 million people who fly every year. David Brenner, director of Columbia University’s Center for Radiological Research, estimated an additional 100 cancers every year.

For Dr. Smith-Bindman, close to 40 percent of those 100 million will develop cancer in their lifetime anyway, so it would be hard to determine what role airport scanners played.

For this report, the easiest way to answer these questions is through research and studies that can appear in peer-reviewed journals. The authors suggest analyzing how much radiation is given off by these scanners and calculating the lifetime effect of this radiation on passengers. 

This report was published by ProPublica and PBS NewsHour.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
November 2, 2011
Last Updated:
November 3, 2011