by Michael Grabell
Look for a PBS NewsHour story on X-ray body scanners, reported in conjunction with ProPublica, to air later this month.
On Sept. 23, 1998, a panel of radiation safety experts gathered at a Hilton hotel in Maryland to evaluate a new device that could detect hidden weapons and contraband. The machine, known as the Secure 1000, beamed X-rays at people to see underneath their clothing.
One after another, the experts convened by the Food and Drug Administration raised questions about the machine because it violated a longstanding principle in radiation safety — that humans shouldn’t be X-rayed unless there is a medical benefit.
“I think this is really a slippery slope,” said Jill Lipoti, who was the director of New Jersey’s radiation protection program. The device was already deployed in prisons; what was next, she and others asked — courthouses, schools, airports? “I am concerned … with expanding this type of product for the traveling public,” said another panelist, Stanley Savic, the vice president for safety at a large electronics company. “I think that would take this thing to an entirely different level of public health risk.”
The machine’s inventor, Steven W. Smith, assured the panelists that it was highly unlikely that the device would see widespread use in the near future. At the time, only 20 machines were in operation in the entire country.
“The places I think you are not going to see these in the next five years is lower-security facilities, particularly power plants, embassies, courthouses, airports and governments,” Smith said. “I would be extremely surprised in the next five to 10 years if the Secure 1000 is sold to any of these.”
Today, the United States has begun marching millions of airline passengers through the X-ray body scanners, parting ways with countries in Europe and elsewhere that have concluded that such widespread use of even low-level radiation poses an unacceptable health risk. The government is rolling out the X-ray scanners despite having a safer alternative that the Transportation Security Administration says is also highly effective.
A ProPublica/PBS NewsHour investigation of how this decision was made shows that in post-9/11 America, security issues can trump even long-established medical conventions. The final call to deploy the X-ray machines was made not by the FDA, which regulates drugs and medical devices, but by the TSA, an agency whose primary mission is to prevent terrorist attacks.
Research suggests that anywhere from six to 100 U.S. airline passengers each year could get cancer from the machines. Still, the TSA has repeatedly defined the scanners as “safe,” glossing over the accepted scientific view that even low doses of ionizing radiation — the kind beamed directly at the body by the X-ray scanners — increase the risk of cancer.
“Even though it’s a very small risk, when you expose that number of people, there’s a potential for some of them to get cancer,” said Kathleen Kaufman, the former radiation management director in Los Angeles County, who brought the prison X-rays to the FDA panel’s attention.
About 250 X-ray scanners are currently in U.S. airports, along with 264 body scanners that use a different technology, a form of low-energy radio waves known as millimeter waves.
Robin Kane, the TSA’s assistant administrator for security technology, said that no one would get cancer because the amount of radiation the X-ray scanners emit is minute. Having both technologies is important to create competition, he added.
“It’s a really, really small amount relative to the security benefit you’re going to get,” Kane said. “Keeping multiple technologies in play is very worthwhile for the U.S. in getting that cost-effective solution — and being able to increase the capabilities of technology because you keep everyone trying to get the better mousetrap.”