The nation has been in an uproar over recent security measures instituted by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The two main arguments against the process are based on health concerns and unnecessary physical contact. The safety aspect has raised several health concerns, and oral cancer could be one of them.
Instead of simply walking through a metal detector, all passengers must step into a full-body scanner using radiation to show remote officials a nude image of each passenger’s body, proving each person isn’t carrying any unapproved objects. If passengers refuse this method based on health or other reasons, their other option is a detailed pat-down.
TSA officials have said this process is all in the name of passenger safety to ensure no dangerous objects enter an airplane. Many passengers, however, have complained that it’s unsafe and an invasion of privacy.
The scanners produce the images using “backscatter” technology with ionizing radiation similar to an X-ray. In larger doses, this kind of radiation could cause cell changes that lead to cancer. The TSA has pronounced the amount of radiation in the scanners negligible, but frequent flyers have expressed concern over excess exposure.
Radiation is measured in microrems, and the scanners expose passengers to about 10 microrems of radiation. In comparison, a typical dental X-ray only exposes you to about 2-3 microrems. Most people are exposed to small doses of radiation throughout a normal day, but several people have said the amount of radiation from the scanners is actually higher than officials claim.
In her article “Radiation Experts Concerned with TSA Airport Security Scanners,” U.S. News health writer Deborah Kotz brings up a recent request by several experts in the field:
But some researchers who study radiation’s health effects beg to differ. Last April, four imaging experts from the University of California, San Francisco sent a letter of concern to President Obama’s science and technology advisor, John Holdren, questioning, “the extent to which the safety of this scanning device has been adequately demonstrated,” they wrote. They added that it might deliver a concentrated dose of radiation to the skin—necessary to penetrate clothes—that could be “dangerously high,” possibly increasing the risk of skin cancer and other cancers in susceptible individuals. They called for an independent panel of experts to review all the risk data including whether the scanners pose a higher risk to certain folks like pregnant women, seniors, children, and teens.
The government declined their request, reiterating that the scans are safe for everyone. “The imaging machine was independently tested, and these studies have shown that the radiation dose is far below the standards set for safety,” says TSA spokesperson Nick Kimball. “These scans are safe for all passengers and are similar to the radiation they’re exposed to at high altitudes on an airplane.” People are exposed to radiation all the time on the ground, but they get a larger dose when they’re traveling 30,000 feet above ground, where the atmosphere is thinner and the sun’s rays stronger.”
In addition to raising questions about potential skin cancer caused by radiation bouncing off the surface of the skin, many are worried about its potential to cause other types of cancer as well, including oral cancer. The head is a sensitive, delicate part of the body, and excess radiation could do some damage. Some experts have suggested that since it would be rather difficult to hide a weapon or other appliance on a person’s head or neck anyway, that the machine should only scan from the neck down. Since oral or pharyngeal cancer will cause more than 8,000 deaths this year according to the Oral Cancer Foundation, this change might be an important consideration.