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TSA (Finally) Studying Health Effects of Body Scanners 225

Posted by timothy
from the different-kind-of-transparency dept.
An anonymous reader writes "A 2011 ProPublica series found that the TSA had glossed over the small cancer risk posed by its X-ray body scanners at airports across the country. While countries in Europe have long prohibited the scanners, the TSA is just now getting around to studying the health effects." I'm not worried; the posters and recorded announcements at the airport say these scanners raise no health concerns.
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TSA (Finally) Studying Health Effects of Body Scanners

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  • by InvisibleClergy (1430277) on Tuesday December 18, 2012 @11:42AM (#42326575)

    The real issue with these was never the health effects. That was just an extra thing that privacy advocates tossed in there to lend additional weight to their arguments. The primary argument against these things is the fact that they are a violation of privacy. Arguing the health issue just weakens objections, when it gets defeated.

    • by somersault (912633) on Tuesday December 18, 2012 @11:47AM (#42326641) Homepage Journal

      Personally I don't care about that kind of "privacy". I'd say the time I stopped caring was around the time I lost my virginity. I do care about getting cancer though.

      • by Joce640k (829181) on Tuesday December 18, 2012 @11:53AM (#42326717) Homepage

        Well, that's OK then. So long as YOU don't care, neither should anybody else.

        The rape victims, the sexually assaulted, the people with any sort of problem should just get over it, right?

      • by blueg3 (192743) on Tuesday December 18, 2012 @12:31PM (#42327241)

        There are problems with many of the arguments against the scanners.
        The medical danger should be a concern to everyone, but evidence suggests that the danger is negligible (though possibly nonzero).
        The privacy danger is patently obvious and verifiable (though sometimes overstated), but it's just not a concern to many.
        The cost-benefit argument has the problem that the "benefit" can be very difficult to accurately measure and the government may choose not to disclose data about whether the devices are beneficial. (This is, regardless, the argument I prefer.)

        That's not to say there are no problems with arguments for the scanners. At the very least (the very least), it makes sense to use the microwave scanners over the X-ray backscatter. The medical danger is known to be zero, which is even better than the backscatter's best-case of "is probably zero". Even if they're less effective, we don't seem to be relying on either system to be particularly effective.

        • by loneDreamer (1502073) on Tuesday December 18, 2012 @01:58PM (#42328411)

          The medical danger should be a concern to everyone, but evidence suggests that the danger is negligible (though possibly nonzero).

          But, ironically, bigger than the terrorism risk it's designed to prevent. Apart from the rest of your opinion, which I share, it also feels incredibly stupid to spend trucks of money to actually INCREASE my risk, especially given the economic circumstances and alternatives.

          And I'm not even considering that how efficient the scanners are in preventing the terrorism risk in general, which I deem next to zero too. So all things considered, you spend a lot, hazzle and disrespect people considerably, step over privacy rights, don't prevent much and end up adding a new, bigger risk. Fucking brilliant!

          • by blueg3 (192743)

            I'm not convinced that the medical risk is bigger than the risk of terrorism it's designed to prevent. I might be convinced that it's bigger than its capacity to actually reduce that risk of terrorism. But for one, the medical risk is really, really small and for another, at that level both things are frustratingly difficult to accurately quantify.

            I don't particularly think the scanners are effective at much of anything, especially if you compare them to the impact of other possible expenditures of the same

            • by loneDreamer (1502073) on Tuesday December 18, 2012 @02:45PM (#42329087)
              I did find this talk some time ago: http://www.ted.com/talks/marc_goodman_a_vision_of_crimes_in_the_future.html [ted.com]. It's interesting in noticing that security is almost impossible as damaging is much easier than preventing damage. The problem with terrorist is that little can actually be done to stop it. As it was recently proved, a single person with a gun can shock the world. Do that 10 times in random locations and see what happens... hell, I can think of many ways to create terror myself, without trying much.

              I read somewhere that one of Bin Laden's objectives was to make the US spend 1 millon for each dolar that they spent. It is guerrilla warfare, it's all they've got, and they have been extremely successful at it. The values and way of life the US people were so proud about are gone. The millions were spent and continue to be. Sadly, the root of the issue it that, bared some reasonable efforts, the only way to fight terror is by enduring it and not being scared. Luckily, very few people are actually determined to do real damage and cause pain.
              • by radtea (464814) on Tuesday December 18, 2012 @04:12PM (#42330265)

                The problem with terrorist is that little can actually be done to stop it.

                The much, much bigger problem is that there are a small number of people who are getting very rich selling the illusion that they can do something to stop it. If it wasn't for the opportunities to funnel money into the pockets of unproductive generators of dead-weight losses in the security/industrial complex terrorism would simply be a minor nuisance, akin to traffic accidents.

                It is the quislings who make terrorism so problematic.

        • by aaarrrgggh (9205)

          The homicide rate in the US is about 5/100,000, so making a whole lot of sweeping assumptions, you would expect to see 9 homicides per year in airports and on airplanes past the security checkpoints. There are about 330 primary airports, so maybe 1,000 checkpoints active on average. That gives each checkpoint a 1% chance of finding a "bad guy" per year.

          If on the other hand, you did absolutely no security screening, what would the mortality rate be? Let's just say there were just police officers walking a

          • by blueg3 (192743)

            A reasonable and very rough estimate. I agree that scanners, and lots of other security measures, are well into poor cost-benefit territory. Of course, real measured effect is hard to come by.

            That gives each checkpoint a 1% chance of finding a "bad guy" per year.

            But of course the false positive rate is incredibly high, since the scanner cannot detect intent. The only way we'd get a solid estimate of how many bad guys were actually caught is if we successfully did a thorough investigation for each positive to weed out the false ones.

            Making a rough estimate by the reports in the

        • by tftp (111690)

          Also there is a problem: once the criminal manages to go through the checkpoint, one way or another, he is in the clear and has the red carpet all the way to the airplane.

          If enough people have the intent, they can carry a ton of explosives into the secure area, one gram at a time. Nobody would pay any attention to their actions, and small quantities of anything cannot be detected. So in the end it's just a matter of money.

          • by blueg3 (192743)

            Those are some bold generalizations that are accurate enough in this context. But note that some things can be detected in smaller quantities than they can reasonably be divided into. (Plutonium can be detected in incredibly small amounts, and photons can be detected individually.) Of course in the end it's just a matter of money--with enough money they could just buy everything and blow it all up legally.

            The thing is that increasing the cost of an attack is a successful defense strategy, because it reduces

        • by Shagg (99693)

          The medical danger should be a concern to everyone, but evidence suggests that the danger is negligible (though possibly nonzero).

          What evidence?

      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by sl4shd0rk (755837)

        I stopped caring was around the time I lost my virginity.

        Ha.. nice try. You're clearly lying. This is Slashdot.

      • by Solandri (704621)
        Privacy is the only real issue with the scanners. You get a much higher radiation dose from the flight (less atmosphere to block cosmic rays) than you do from the scanners. Complaining about radiation from the scanners is kinda like complaining the cooling mister the public swimming pool has set up is getting you wet just before you jump into the pool. If you're that worried about getting cancer you'd drive instead of fly, just like if you were that worried about getting wet you wouldn't be swimming.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 18, 2012 @11:49AM (#42326663)

      I can't speak for everyone, but personally I value my lack of cancer more than I do my privacy.

    • by shentino (1139071)

      Sounds like a strawman plant.

    • by Microlith (54737) on Tuesday December 18, 2012 @12:10PM (#42326931)

      It's more than that. It's a blatant violation of the 4th Amendment. They have no good reason to search so invasively each and every person in this country who flies. There's no basis for them to believe that every person is a possible terrorist. It's just a blatant, idiotic expansion of powers and a jobs program for the terminally unemployable so jackasses can stand behind the metal detectors and look like they're important.

      The TSA has accomplished precisely shit in the entirety of its existence. It's successfully engaged in mission creep as it starts doing things for the DEA and whatnot, and managed to violate the dignity of a growing number of people. I have no respect for anyone that works for the TSA, on both a professional and personal level.

      • Now, now. They've accomplished a bit more than "precisely shit". They've managed to establish themselves as a legally-mandated terrorist organization.
  • by BMOC (2478408) on Tuesday December 18, 2012 @11:43AM (#42326583)

    ...In context with Fukushima and a non-polluting energy source: RADIATION BAD!

    ...In context with police state enabling technology: RADIATION GOOD!

    • by blueg3 (192743)

      ...In context with Fukushima and a non-polluting energy source: RADIATION BAD!

      In the context of nuclear power, "radiation" really is referring to radioactive isotopes and potentially-large quantities of high-energy electromagnetic radition, alpha rays, and beta rays. In the context of a nuclear accident like Fukushima, it more is referring to the uncontrolled dispersal of radioactive isotopes (which are toxic independent of their radioactivity) and the uncontrolled release of very large quantities of mostly high-energy electromagnetic radiation.

      ...In context with police state enabling technology: RADIATION GOOD!

      In the context of backscatter X-ray s

      • by BMOC (2478408)

        Chance of measurable exposure to loose radioactive isotopes in the environment after 2 major nuclear accidents in the world: >0.000001%

        Chance of ionizing some of your cellular chemistry from high-school-education-level TSA employees using an X-ray source to see your body before you get on a plane: 100%

        • by ajlitt (19055)

          Chance of measurable increased exposure to ionizing cosmic rays once the plane is at altitude: 100%

          • by tylikcat (1578365)

            But the wavelength and penetrance is substantially different - we know an awful lot about the radiation exposure associated with flying. We know less about the effects of the radiation exposure from the backscatter scanners, and TSA fudged their numbers in icky misleading ways (calculating exposure as if it were spread throughout the body, etc). That TSA presented the radiation from flying and radiation from backscatter as equivalent also seemed quite misleading - though, of course, incompetence is also alw

            • by blueg3 (192743)

              But the wavelength and penetrance is substantially different - we know an awful lot about the radiation exposure associated with flying. We know less about the effects of the radiation exposure from the backscatter scanners

              That's not really true. Mostly what we know a lot about is the damage caused by particular radioisotopes, some sources of X-rays, and nuclear accidents. The rest is modeled. X-ray backscatter scanners emit a measured amount of X-rays at a known frequency that's well within the realm of what we know about.

              TSA fudged their numbers in icky misleading ways (calculating exposure as if it were spread throughout the body, etc)

              Sort of. That's a common and very reasonable assumption when the dosage is many orders of magnitude below an acute dosage (which it is). Some people, after this became a big news item and political issue, d

              • by Shagg (99693)

                X-ray backscatter scanners emit a measured amount of X-rays

                Measured by who?

              • by hawguy (1600213)

                But the wavelength and penetrance is substantially different - we know an awful lot about the radiation exposure associated with flying. We know less about the effects of the radiation exposure from the backscatter scanners

                That's not really true. Mostly what we know a lot about is the damage caused by particular radioisotopes, some sources of X-rays, and nuclear accidents. The rest is modeled. X-ray backscatter scanners emit a measured amount of X-rays at a known frequency that's well within the realm of what we know about.

                I'm no radiation expert, but when a group of PhD's and MD's who *are* radiation experts have concerns about the machines, then I have concerns:

                http://www.npr.org/assets/news/2010/05/17/concern.pdf [npr.org]

                The X-ray dose from these devices has often been compared in the media to the cosmic
                ray exposure inherent to airplane travel or that of a chest X-ray. However, this
                comparison is very misleading: both the air travel cosmic ray exposure and chest Xrays
                have much higher X-ray energies and the health consequences are appropriately
                understood in terms of the whole body volume dose. In contrast, these new airport
                scanners are largely depositing their energy into the skin and immediately adjacent
                tissue, and since this is such a small fraction of body weight/vol, possibly by one to two
                orders of magnitude, the real dose to the skin is now high.

                This letter was written almost 3 years ago, have any of their concerns been addressed?

                • by blueg3 (192743)

                  I've seen this before. It's disagreed upon by experts, but I don't think these guys hold the prevailing opinion. Notably, their estimate of the difference is correct--a couple orders of magnitude. However, 2 orders of magnitude, or even 3, above what the X-ray backscatter scanners emit is still an incredibly small dose. I think this may have been written before radiation dosages for in-the-field scanners were publicly available. (Rough dosages for the prototype models have always been available, but underst

        • by blueg3 (192743)

          Chance of exposure to radioactive isotopes from nuclear accidents (there's been more than two): 100%
          Chance of exposure to radioactive isotopes from nuclear weapons: 100%
          Chance of exposure to radioactive isotopes from burning coal: very close to 1 for most parts of the world 100%
          Chance of ionizing some of your cellular chemistry by eating a banana: 100%
          Chance of ionizing some of your cellular chemistry by going into a basement: 100%
          Chance of ionizing some of your cellular chemistry by going outside: 100%
          Chan

    • by TCQuad (537187) on Tuesday December 18, 2012 @12:34PM (#42327285)
      Radiation for all!
      Boooo!
      Very well, no radiation for anyone!
      Boooo!
      Hmm... Radiation for some, miniature American flags for others!
      Yaaaay!
  • by BrendaEM (871664) on Tuesday December 18, 2012 @11:57AM (#42326777) Homepage

    These scanners should have to go through the same FDA approval process as any medical device. People are putting their kids in there.
    If the odds of getting cancer from the scanners in their lifetime is 1: 1,000,000 then 1.5 people will get cancer from them--every day!

    We cannot suspend our judgement just because there are terrorists in the world and money to be made.

    • by shentino (1139071)

      This is nothing more than the strong oppressing the weak.

      The weak being passengers and the strong being the feds.

      I point out that the feds have put the TSA with a gun held to air commerce since everyone who boards a plane has to go through them.

      So the TSA naturally feels no obligation to not abuse their power.

      Since passengers don't have a choice, they have no leverage to resist it.

      Add to this non refundable airline tickets and you have passengers locked in for abuse even before they arrive at the airport.

    • by LordNimon (85072)

      People are putting their kids in there.

      I've flown several times and have never been in one of these scanners. As soon as the TSA staff see my children, we're routed through the metal detectors instead.

    • We cannot suspend our judgement just because we are constantly told there are terrorists in the world and money to be made.

      FTFY.

      After all, one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by eviljav (68734)

      Then, in the span of about 5 years, these scanners will have caused cancer in a greater number of people than the number of people killed by terrorists on 9/11/2001?

  • Seems bass-ackwards...the TSA should have done this study before deploying these scanners. Of course now they have a vast pool of data (e.g. victims) to study so maybe this was their (nefarious) plan in the first place.
  • It's about time that the full weight of the TSA's medical expertise was thrown behind this issue.
  • So a cell phone is 10,000 time more powerful. A TSA scan takes five seconds a few times a year. Many cellphone users have against their heads hours a day.
    • by na1led (1030470)
      You get more Radiation from flying high altitude than almost anything else.
    • by SecurityGuy (217807) on Tuesday December 18, 2012 @12:22PM (#42327087)

      Frequency matters. I can sit in front of my IR heat dish and dump watts/cm^2 into my body and get no effect other than pleasant warmth. When you start talking about ionizing radiation, that is individual photons that are energetic enough to knock electrons off atoms, you get effects that you'll never see simply by dumping energy into a volume.

      I'm not bothering to look up what radiation these scanners use, merely pointing out that comparing watts is not what you want to be doing.

      • by vlm (69642)

        I'm not bothering to look up what radiation these scanners use, merely pointing out that comparing watts is not what you want to be doing.

        I'm no tinfoil hatter, and there's a lot more to safety than merely peak power, and there are serious differences in primary input power vs output power aka efficiency, but there's a pretty obvious argument where if you quote the giant machine thats wired to a wall socket 30 amp 440 3-phase ckt as being 4 orders of magnitude lower power than a cellphone that runs for days off a tiny little battery, something is wrong with the numbers beyond simple comparison of wattage.

        Also uW/cm figures start approaching t

        • I'm no tinfoil hatter, and there's a lot more to safety than merely peak power, and there are serious differences in primary input power vs output power aka efficiency, but there's a pretty obvious argument where if you quote the giant machine thats wired to a wall socket 30 amp 440 3-phase ckt as being 4 orders of magnitude lower power than a cellphone that runs for days off a tiny little battery, something is wrong with the numbers beyond simple comparison of wattage.

          That is literally the exact form of specious reasoning that tinfoil hatters use. If you're trying to recruit them, good job. That kind of "reasoning" is very appealing to them, since it sounds logical and doesn't require a lot of thought or explanation (or even stand up to it!)

          My house is wired to a 20 kW circuit. Therefore, I might as well be sitting inside 20 microwaves as be in my house. Through the power of deductive logic, since I am not burned to a crisp, I am immune to radiation.

          Hey Fukushima, I hea

  • by cellocgw (617879) <cellocgwNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Tuesday December 18, 2012 @12:07PM (#42326887) Journal

    Forget whether or not there are scanners. The real issue is whether or not there should be a TSA at all. There's no evidence that the $BIGNUM dollars spent has done anything whatsoever to stop or dissuade terrorist in-flight attacks.
    I'd suggest to the libertarians, Repubs, and other "personal liberty small government invisible hand of capitalism" folks that airline security should be the responsibility of the airlines themselves. I'd choose a "walk-on no problem" vendor over a "scan, remove your clothes, and provide a blood sample" vendor every time.

  • by SuricouRaven (1897204) on Tuesday December 18, 2012 @12:09PM (#42326915)

    Either the report will be completed, but in large part classified leading to conspiracy theories.
    Or the report will say no hazard, but no-one is going to believe this because they do not trust the TSA to be truthful.

  • by slashmydots (2189826) on Tuesday December 18, 2012 @12:18PM (#42327045)
    Maybe they'll even discover why everyone who steps into one gets a strong urge to punch the operator of it and most others within a 10 foot radius. It must be some kind of brain wave-interfering radiation, lol.
  • ... the TSA caught?

  • We all know how this will turn out. They'll run a few tests with bubbling beakers and screens full of pretty graphs and come back with the magical answer of "The data is inconclusive so we'll keep using them."
  • Okay, there are two kinds of body scanners. One uses backscatter x-rays, the other uses millimeter-wave radio waves. The ones deployed at airports are the latter, not the former; x-rays are not being used to scan people in airports in the United States. So let's recognize that what the TSA is doing here is evaluating a kind of scanner that they have not deployed . In other words, they're making sure it's safe before they use it. Backscatter x-ray scanners are more commonly used to examine vehicles; th

    • by Gordo_1 (256312) on Tuesday December 18, 2012 @01:36PM (#42328107)

      Up until a couple months ago, there were *both* backscatter X-Ray machines and millimeter wave machines in use in US airports. The backscatter X-Ray machines WERE NOT properly tested and WERE deployed FIRST. They're undoing that mistake now by removing the backscatter machines (at least from the airport checkpoints I frequent.)

      I heard that the backscatter machines were being relegated to smaller airports, but I have no firsthand knowledge of that situation.

  • by Gordo_1 (256312) on Tuesday December 18, 2012 @01:31PM (#42328033)

    I travel every other week between LAX and SFO and both airports have removed the backscatter machines from security checkpoints I use. In addition to standard metal detectors, you will still find the older millimeter wave machines (the ones that give a simple red or green indicator) in some places.

    It's nice not to have to go through the "opt out" groping routine on a regular basis any longer.

    • by Solandri (704621)
      Yeah, I noticed that too. On a recent trip I was going to assert my privacy rights and refuse to go through the scanners. At both LAX and ORD, the scanners were sitting unused in closed lines, and people were being directed through the regular metal detectors.
  • by ChilyWily (162187) on Tuesday December 18, 2012 @01:50PM (#42328301) Homepage
    So long as the people who make these part of the "Law" and yet are never subject to it themselves, nothing will change. The day they see their children or loved ones or themselves get cancer or suffer to a state mandated molestation, or even if they simply have to take off their shoes and catch a foot fungus, that's the day when this crap will stop. Until then, who cares... this will always be so, and incremental, meaningless studies will be done to give the impression that the people who purport to represent us, "care". Sorry to sound jaded, but the current Executive, Legislative and Judiciary are the worst ever.
  • TSA & Gun Control (Score:5, Insightful)

    by assertation (1255714) on Tuesday December 18, 2012 @04:04PM (#42330169)

    One guy, over 10 years ago, makes a failed shoe bombing attempt so the Republicans make all of us take off our shoes whenever we get on an airplane.

    One guy successfully guns down almost all 30 people and they will not pass one law regulating guns.

    • by Jason Levine (196982) on Tuesday December 18, 2012 @04:42PM (#42330633)

      Guns don't kill people, shoes kill people?

      On the other hand, let's just be glad they didn't go the "shoe bomber reaction" route when the underwear bomber struck. Though requiring everyone strip naked to get through the line *would* be a quick way to get the TSA's requirements looked at closely.

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