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News » Filed under: Cancer Risks/Causes

Prominent US Radiology Association Says Airport Body Scanners Safe

Article date: January 28, 2010

By: Rebecca Viksnins Snowden

If you've recently traveled internationally or flown through one of the US's busiest airports, you may have noticed there's something new at airport security lines in addition to the usual bag scanners and wands. The whole body scanner, which scans your body head to toe to detect objects hidden by clothing, is common abroad and is becoming increasingly common at airports in the US, as the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) ramps up efforts to keep travelers safe.

But not everyone is a fan of the scanners. Some argue they pose a privacy risk, and still others are worried about the biological effects of whole body radiation. But do the whole body scanners actually pose a health risk?

The American College of Radiology (ACR) -- the leading US professional society of radiologists, radiation oncologists, medical physicists, interventional radiologists, and nuclear medicine physicians -- says no.

According to a recent statement, the ACR says it is "not aware of any evidence that either of the scanning technologies that the TSA is considering would present significant biological effects for passengers screened."

Low-radiation technology

Whole body scanners use one of 2 types of scanning technology: millimeter wave or backscatter technology.

Millimeter wave technology aims low-level radio frequency (RF) waves at the surface of the body to create a 3-dimensional image. That image is then displayed on a nearby screen for analysis.

Backscatter technology uses very weak X-rays to capture a whole body image. The TSA says the radiation from backscatter technology is about the amount a person gets from flying for 2 minutes in an airplane at 30,000 feet. A traveler would need more than 1,000 backscatter scans in a year to reach the effective dose equal to one standard chest X-ray, according to the ACR.

Scan still optional

Despite the safety of the technology, getting a whole body scan at a US airport is still optional.

While the TSA says that many passengers prefer to use the technology, especially those with joint replacements and other medical devices that would trigger a metal detector, it emphasizes that passengers can opt out and get the usual body pat-down instead.

The TSA currently has 40 millimeter wave scanners in use at 19 airports. It has plans to purchase 150 backscatter units.

Reviewed by: Members of the ACS Medical Content Staff

ACS News Center stories are provided as a source of cancer-related news and are not intended to be used as press releases.