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…

TSA Scanners and Oral Health

TSA Scanners Could Raise Oral Health Concerns

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.

Security Measures

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 is not 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 is unsafe and an invasion of privacy.

Scanner Radiation

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.”

Dental Health

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.

6 Comments
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  2. It really is interesting that they are doing this now. Its seems like what we have been doing the past little bit has been working, so i do not know why they are suddenly increasing their security.

    related to the health aspects of it though, my question for the TSA is “why not allow an an independent panel of experts to review all the risk data?” If you are going to mandate that someone go through getting doused with radiation or having their privacy completely violated, i think you should have an independent panel, separate from the government, and separate from the company that made it, review the machine to see what its effects really are.

    IMHO you shouldnt be afraid to let a third party test it unless you are afraid they wont approve of it.

    So i guess until they do all, all of my flights will be synonymous with the word: awkward.

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