Airport scanners aren't a major health risk

Those whole-body scanners at the airport aren't giving you anywhere near the radiation dose of a standard chest X-ray—.1 microsevert of radiation vs. 100 microseverts, according to the director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University Medical Center. That means they aren't really a health risk for individuals, though experts warn that, if the scanners becomes the primary means of airport security, used on everybody who passes through, they could pose problems on a wider, population level.


  1. I always thought the argument against the body scanners was the invasion of privacy, not so much the assault of radiation.

  2. I’d met several people who were concerned about it, and I myself had wondered, so I thought this was interesting info.

  3. There are two types of machine. The back scatter type is the one that has the damaging X-Ray component. However, many of the machines are millimeter wave which have risks similar to mobile phones, which is to say no measurable risk at all.

  4. I have seen a number of people quote the 0.1uSv figure, but haven’t seen any peer-reviewed research on the subject. Does anyone have a good reference for this number? There’s very little information on the X-ray energies being used or the scanning method (besides the simplified “flying-spot” phrase). Finally, just because the millimeter wave machines don’t use ionizing radiation doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t know what kind of power levels are involved.


    (radiation damage is cumulative and has no safe dosage)


    (terrorists are out to get you)


    (we have always been at war with eastasia)

  6. I just got back from shooting a story for Popular Science about a scientist involved in early WiFi R&D for a mobile phone company in Sweden. He can’t go near anything electric now, has to live in remote woodland and most of his colleagues are dead.I had to shoot it with analogue gear and couldn’t take my cell phone anywhere near.

    Apparently one of these X-Rays could kill him.

    He’s very very ill but his concern for us was the cumulative long term effects of continual exposure to this sort of radiation, WiFi, Mobile phone tech etc.

    I think it’s next months issue so if you’re interested maybe look it up.

    1. Interesting story, though while I’m waiting the the next issue to come out, I can’t help but wonder if the researcher was just paranoid, or if he was truly so sick that exposure a single x-ray could kill him (technically isnt the earth bathed in x-rays everyday? So how does living in the woods help, other than to calm his paranoia?). And if it was EM radiation he was worried about, wouldn’t any electric device put out an EM field? I don’t see how analog gear would protect him getting bathed in EM radiation

      Back to the topic at hand, I can’t see how exposing people to radiation can be a good thing. For the average person who flies maybe a few times a year, the scanners hopefully wouldn’t effect them (has science looked at how irradiating kids effects their development?), but for the constant travelers like business men/women this could be quite troublesome. Considering we are dealing with radiation, OSHA will probably require the TSA operators to wear led vests while operating the machine (or any one working near it).

      Personally, seeing someone in a led vest does not inspire confidence in the machine I’m about to step up to or through.

  7. no harm, unless you use them more often… what? doens’t that imply that there is some kind of harm involved in the first place?

  8. How would problem crop up on a “wider, population level” if there are no problems on an individual level to begin with?

  9. How much radiation is OK? The fact is, we know precious little, regarding the long term effects of radiation on the human body. So how can a person pontificate as to whether a given dose is harmless? The answer is, they can’t, accurately. And if they do, they are simply pulling figures and estimates out of their asses.

  10. Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, one of the world’s premier hospitals, can’t calibrate their CT scanners correctly, and is cooking their patients. See:

    But no cause for concern: I’m sure the TSA knows what they’re doing…

    (Because of privacy and dosage concerns, there should absolutely be an opt-out option, for an alternative, passive inspection – like, bypass the radiation screening and go straight to secondary inspection)

  11. Kids used to be able to get their feet x-rayed at the shoe store. It was kind of a sales gimmick. Now it seems very foolish.

    Now we have this new “safe” radiation-based safety gimmick – I wonder how long until that seems reckless?

  12. Seems mildly silly to worry about X-ray exposure at the airport and then get on a plane and hang out at 40,000 feet for a few hours.

    Still, X-rays are pretty nasty critters and it would be good to have more info about any sources we’re exposed to.

    I suppose the TSA would probably get pissed about random normal people wearing dosimeter badges through their fancy x-ray specs.

  13. @ Bucket,

    Or better yet, a Geiger counter. Nothing like the high pitched scream of clicks telling you that your safe from terrorists.

  14. Does anyone honestly think that any device to be used in the Military-Industrial-Congressional-SecurityState complex is going to receive an unbiased assessment?

  15. Pandering politicians and an innumerate population: a recipe for tragi-comic gold.

    Everyone is terrified of flying now, or disgusted by the senseless security theater, so they’re driving instead. This phenomenon is estimated to have increased US traffic deaths by 5,000 since 9/11.

    And now, in order to foil underwear-and-shoe bombers (who have killed zero people to date), our politicians will spend billions of dollars to expose all air travelers to additional radiation. This additional radiation, while unlikely to kill any one particular individual, is nearly certain to cause fatal cancers in a few dozen people (out of the hundreds of millions of people exposed). So, the ‘preventive’ measure will kill more people than the terrorist tactic it is fighting.

    And, of course, after our billion-dollar investment in whole-body scanners, and after our wholesale abandonment of human dignity at airport checkpoints, terrorists will STILL be able to smuggle explosives aboard at will: they’ll just hide them in body cavities.

    It would all be funny if it weren’t so sad.

  16. I still think it would be easier and cheaper to put a team of ninjas on every flight instead of this annoyance.

  17. I’ve recently seen it claimed that these terahertz, or millimeter-wave, scanners resonate with DNA, unzipping the doubled DNA strands. I don’t have the expertise to evaluate this claim, but I know enough to know that it’s not refuted by amplitude-based arguments like the one in the linked Reuters article.

  18. Chest x-ray is 100 μSv give or take (depends on size of person) and not something you want to have everyday unless you’re in ICU. Most healthy people get two chest x-rays anyways, posteroanterior and left lateral views.

    Whole body scanner is 0.1 μSv according to the article.

    But compare it to flying which is minimum of 3 μSv per hour according to Health Physics Society:
    and I’m not that worried about exposure to the scanner, now, even though in reality there is no rigidly defined safe exposure level.

  19. This is completely ridiculous. I own a very, very sensitive Geiger counter and putting it through the luggage scanner registered a one time burst of 20 mili-REM. The flight itself was 36 mili-REM per hour! Has everyone forgotten that the atmosphere protects us from radiation and the higher you go the more radiation you get? Being afraid of the radiation from a whole body airport scanner is like being a chain smoker and saying you won’t use a cell phone because you might get cancer.

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