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Radiation expert warns frequent fliers to be wary of X-ray scanners

posted 10 Dec 2010, 09:19 by Mpelembe   [ updated 10 Dec 2010, 09:21 ]

A leading US expert on radiation and its effects on the human body is warning frequent fliers to be wary of the X-ray scanning machines now commonly used in airports around the world. Professor David Brenner of New York's Columbia University says repeated body screenings with X-rays heightens the risk of contracting cancer later in life.

Professor David Brenner knows a great deal about chromosomal aberrations. As an expert in radiation bio-physics at New York's Columbia University, he knows such abnormalities can be caused by radiation and can lead to cancers in those who've been exposed to it in relatively high doses. And that's why he's joined the debate about the safety of X-ray scanners in airports.

Authorities claim the scanners, which use X-Rays to scan passengers and aircraft personnel, deliver insignificant doses of radiation and are therefore perfectly safe. Professor Brenner agrees that's true for most people, but for frequent flyers he says, there is cause for concern,

"It's not really a case of safe or unsafe, it's a case of more or less safe. As one goes through a scanner more times, the risk increases. If you go through it ten times, the risk will be ten times what it was going through it once. If you go through it two hundred times, the risk will be two hundred times what it was. These are still small risks, but the risks will build up as you go through the scanner more and more times.", he said.

Most international airports around the world use either millimetre wave scanners, which professor Brenner believes are safe or X-Ray scanners or a combination of both.

The X-Ray machines now deployed in about 70 US airports are made by California company Rapiscan. The company says its Rapiscan 1000 delivers ultra-low doses of X-Rays that provide revealing images to a remote work-station. It has been declared safe by the US Department of Homeland Security, but Professor Brenner believes authorities have under-estimated the machine's potential long-term dangers.

"These X-rays are actually very low energy and they don't penetrate very far inside the body so the big concern we have is actually for the skin and particular for the skin on the head and neck so it would be not hard to actually programme these machines to scan from the neck downwards and I think it's pretty unlikely that you could hide some illicit materials actually on your face so that is one thing that could be done but certainly a better solution would be to use millimetre waves entirely".

Professor Brenner says he has no reason to believe the X-Ray scanners will be removed. But in the meantime, he says one way to mitigate the health risk would be to require airline personnel who are in frequent contact with these machines, to wear the kind of badge that he and his staff wear around their workplace.

"The film badge measures the amount of radiation exposure that the person wearing them gets but it's not sensitive to the extremely low doses that you get when you pass through the scanner itself. But if you're a TSA worker who's standing next to one of these machines for your working day, that's a slightly different situation so it would be appropriate for TSA personnel to be working, to be using film badges."

A better idea he says would be to do away with backscatter X-ray scanners altogether and replace them with millimetre wave machines.

"If there were no alternatives I think it would make absolute sense to use the X-ray scanners, but given there's a perfectly good non-radiation alternative, then I think the game is somewhat different".

Echoing Professor Brenner's concerns, the Allied Pilot's Association has boycotted the machines. They, like Professor Brenner, believe the price of security in the sky, may be too high.