There’s a backlash going on regarding airline safety. People are being asked to choose between stepping into a scanner that uses radiation to scan their bodies for hidden bombs, or to undergo the more invasive, “new” pat down procedure.
This has all come to light due to some passengers refusing to submit to either test and being barred from boarding their plane; the airline pilots union warning it’s pilot members to avoid the TSA scanners, and to various reports of pictures and videos of people’s scanned results being leaked out onto the Internet.
First, the choice. If you want to board your flight, you are directed to pass though a device that looks in most respects like other scanners you’ve seen. You are directed to lift your arms and spin around slowly so that those looking at you on computer screens can see if you are hiding anything beneath your clothes. The images on the computer screens are supposed to be seen only by TSA personnel, though there have been some cases where this has not been the case.
If you refuse to submit to the TSA scanner, you can either allow yourself to be subjected to the new pat-down, or go home.
The new pat-down involves TSA personally patting you down as they have in the past, but now they actually touch your groin and under your breasts if you have them. The pat down is pretty much the same kind they use for criminals entering detention centers.
But back to the scanners. There are two concerns; the first is that your privacy will be violated because the scanner can see through you clothes, which means TSA personnel are looking at images of your naked body. The second concern is about safety, and whether the scanners are putting people at risk due to radiation exposure.
According to Discover Magazine (see references) the risk is not really anything to worry about; at least for the general public. They claim through their own expert sources, that the amount of radiation a person receives from one of the TSA scanners is less than the amount a person would receive from flying in the plane they are about to get on (people at higher altitudes are exposed to more solar radiation that are those on the ground) though they do point out that the risk for pilots and especially those for TSA personnel may be something that needs to be looked into due to repeated exposure.
On the other hand, in an op ed piece for USA Today (see references) Ralph Nader suggests that there may be more danger than we realize because the kind of radiation in the TSA scanners is different than what we normally are used to hearing about. The TSA scanners use something called “back scatter” radiation, which means it bounces off the skin rather than penetrating into the body the way x-rays do. To him, and apparently to those in Italy (which has dropped the device from its airports) and to some in the European Commission, not enough research has been done on this type of radiation to know if people who fly regularly will wind up with skin or eye cancer, or not, over the course of the next several years.
Thus, there is no real agreement on whether these new TSA scanners are dangerous or not; which means, if you are wise, you’ll not agree to having one, because it’s almost always better to be safe than sorry.