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Is Radiation from Airport Body Scanners Dangerous?

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Air travel is an integral part of modern life, with millions of people passing through airport security every day. As part of the security measures, airport scanners are used to detect prohibited items and ensure the safety of passengers and staff. However, the use of these scanners has raised concerns about radiation exposure. 

In this blog, we'll delve into the types of airport scanners, the radiation they emit, and whether they pose any health risks. We'll also discuss what happens during the scanning process, what the scanners can detect, and offer tips for minimizing radiation exposure.

Understanding Airport Body Scanners

Types of Body Scanners

There are primarily two types of body scanners used in airports:

1. Millimeter-Wave Scanners
    These scanners use non-ionizing radiation in the form of low-level radio waves. The technology involves two antennas rotating around the body to create a 3D image, which helps in detecting concealed items. This method does not use X-rays and thus does not contribute to ionizing radiation exposure.

    Millimeter-wave scanners operate using electromagnetic radiation at a frequency of about 30 GHz, corresponding to a wavelength of 10 millimeters. These waves have a penetration depth of about one millimeter, meaning they can pass through clothing but are reflected by the body. The reflected waves are detected by the scanner to create an image. The energy emitted by millimeter-wave scanners is extremely low, comparable to the energy emitted by cell phones.

    When you step into the machine, you place your feet on the footprints and put your arms over your head. The machine sends millimeter waves toward your body, which pass through your clothing and reflect off your skin. If the electromagnetic waves hit something that seems suspect, a Transportation Security Officer (TSO) will investigate further. Otherwise, you can pass through the security checkpoint without a pat-down or other physical contact.
    In Australia, airport security screening for passengers exclusively uses non-ionizing millimeter wave technology. X-ray backscatter technology has never been employed for passenger security screening in the country.

    2. Backscatter X-Ray Scanners


    Previously used in some airports, these scanners emitted low levels of ionizing radiation (x-rays). They were phased out in many countries, including the United States, due to privacy concerns and potential health risks.

    Backscatter X-ray scanners use low-energy X-rays to scan the body. These X-rays penetrate the outer layer of clothing and skin, scattering back towards the detector to form an image based on the different absorption levels of various materials.
    This type of scanner can reveal objects hidden under clothing. Backscatter X-ray scanners use ionizing radiation, which can remove electrons from atoms and potentially damage DNA. 

    Due to concerns about cumulative radiation exposure and privacy issues, backscatter X-ray scanners have been phased out in many countries, including the United States. They have largely been replaced by millimeter-wave scanners, which are considered safer. Early versions of backscatter X-ray scanners displayed detailed images of passengers' bodies, but due to privacy and health concerns, these images are no longer used. Modern scanners only show a generic outline of a person.

    3. Metal Detectors

    Metal detectors, which do not use radiation, screen passengers. The metal detector does not expose you to ionizing radiation, e.g., x rays; neither do the wands that are used for individual screening. Metal detectors operate by generating a low-intensity magnetic field that passes from one side of the detector to the other.

    Airport metal detectors are sensitive to metals, including orthopedic implants inside your body. Commonly implanted orthopedic materials such as stainless steel, cobalt chrome, and titanium can trigger these detectors. With heightened security measures and more sophisticated metal detectors, individuals with metal implants often face increased and more frequent inconveniences, including more invasive security checks.
     
    If you are concerned about radiation exposure during airport security checks, you may opt for Metal detectors instead. However, this is still subject to airport rules and regulations.

     

     Are Full Body Scanners Safe?

     

    Between 2009 and 2013, the TSA used Rapiscan backscatter machines, which raised concerns about safety due to their use of ionizing radiation. These machines were removed from airports due to privacy and health concerns.

     

    The British Institute of Radiology and the Royal College of Radiologists have conducted studies indicating that the dose from an airport scan is 100,000 times lower than the average annual dose of natural background radiation. Dr. Peter Riley, a consultant radiologist, stated that the risk is minuscule, with perhaps two or three cases out of the millions of passengers annually. 

    The consensus among experts is that the benefits of enhanced security far outweigh the minimal radiation risk posed by these scanners. A safer option would be to opt out of body scanners and just go through metal detectors, however, this is again subject to airport rules and regulations, and you still need to follow security procedures.

    While the consensus is that the risk is minimal, certain groups may have additional concerns. For example, individuals with gene mutations or pregnant women might be more cautious about any form of radiation exposure. In such cases, it's advisable to request alternative screening methods if available. Moreover, it’s important to remember that EMF radiation has a cumulative effect, and chronic exposure to it can cause symptoms like headache, tremor, dizziness, memory loss, loss of concentration, and sleep disturbance.

    Tips to Protect Yourself from Radiation at Airports

    Even though the risk from airport body scanners is very low, it’s understandable to want to minimize any potential exposure while in the airport. Here are some practical tips:

    1.Opt for a Pat-Down: If you're worried about radiation, you can ask for a physical pat-down instead of going through the body scanner. However, this option depends on airport security rules. You can tell the TSA agent that you do not wish to go through the scanner.  TSA agents are required under TSA policy to honor your request but might try to encourage or pressure you to go through anyway.  To be as clear as possible, say, "I opt out."  If you opt-out, you will be subject to a “standard pat-down.” 

    Certain groups, like pregnant women or people with specific health concerns, might want to avoid even small amounts of radiation. While exceptions are made for those with medical or physical conditions, you still need to follow security procedures. If you don’t, the airport might not let you enter the terminal.

    2.Minimize Time Near Scanners: Spend as little time as possible in the immediate vicinity of the scanners to reduce exposure.

    3.Opt for Metal Detectors. All public access to an airport is channeled through the terminal, where every person must walk through a metal detector and all items must go through an X-ray machine. After this, you may have the option to opt out of full-body scanners, but again, this depends on the security and regulations of the airport where you’re at.

    4.Stay Informed: Keep up-to-date with airport security technologies and their associated risks. Being informed helps you make better decisions about your safety.
     

    The radiation risk from airport body scanners, particularly those using millimeter-wave technology, is extremely low. However, for those who remain concerned or are particularly vulnerable, taking additional precautions can provide peace of mind. By following the tips outlined above and using Radia Smart® products, you can further minimize your exposure to radiation during air travel.

    For more information about using Radia Smart products during your traveling and in flight, visit Radia Smart® and discover how we can help you live a healthier, more protected life. Safe travels!


    References:


    https://www.livescience.com/65671-are-airport-xrays-harmful.html

    https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/radiation/airport_scan.htm

    https://www.epa.gov/radtown/radiation-and-airport-security-scanning

    https://www.tsi-mag.com/technological-advances-take-airport-x-ray-scanners-to-the-next-level/

    https://www.arpansa.gov.au/understanding-radiation/radiation-sources/more-radiation-sources/airport-passenger-screening

    https://www.bbc.com/news/health-13990434

    https://radiasmart.com/blogs/latest-blog/protecting-your-family-from-emf-radiation-during-holiday-travel

    https://medium.com/intuition/is-that-airport-security-scanner-dangerous-155ed335403c#:~:text=Airport%20scanners%20operate%20using%20electromagnetic,but%20reflect%20off%20the%20body.

    https://www.melbourneairport.com.au/security-screening

    https://hps.org/publicinformation/ate/faqs/pregnancyandsecurityscreening.html#:~:text=The%20metal%20detector%20does%20not,the%20detector%20to%20the%20other.

    https://www.directorthocare.com/airport-metal-detectors-vs-body-metal/#:~:text=Millimeter%2Dwave%20scanners%20use%20radiofrequency,X%2Dray%20machines%20scan%20luggage

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