Scientist: X-ray scanners deliver “20 times the average dose that is typically quoted by TSA.”

U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, a scientist and the Chairman of the House Select Intelligence Oversight Panel, says the "TSA's current obsession with fielding body imaging technology is misguided, counterproductive, and potentially dangerous."
In March, the Congressional Biomedical Caucus (of which I am a co-chair) hosted a presentation on this technology by TSA, as well as a briefing by Dr. David Brenner of Columbia University on the potential health effects of “back scatter” x-ray devices. As Dr. Brenner noted in his presentation and in subsequent media interviews, the devices currently in use and proposed for wider deployment this year currently deliver to the scalp “20 times the average dose that is typically quoted by TSA and throughout the industry.”

Dr. Brenner has pointed out that the majority of the radiation from X-ray backscatter machines strikes the top of the head, which is where 85 percent of the 800,000 cases of basal cell carcinoma diagnosed in the United States each year develop. According to Dr. Brenner, excessive x-ray exposure can act as a cancer rate multiplier, which is why our government should investigate thoroughly the potential health risks associated with this technology.

U.S. Rep. Rush Holt Continues to Question Science, Effectiveness of TSA Full Body Scanners


  1. The plans for these pornscans and gropechecks originated back when Hooters Air was flying.


  2. Me thinks a simple hat fashioned from a foil of tin ought to remedy this! Add a tinfoil codpiece and you should be all set.

  3. Slightly OT, but is there any thought of having an open thread at BB for irradiated, groped readers to report their experiences traveling this holiday weekend? I’d be curious to read what people experienced, what they tried to do to make it less (or more) unpleasant, and whether or not they took part in any opt-out actions.

  4. So the scanners give us more radiation and they’ve been keeping copies of images. Was there anything else they told us about these things? Oh, right, that they keep us safe and are necessary.

    We’ll see how those shake out after the holidays. I don’t have to fly until next June at this point and I’m really hoping that these get taken away before then. I mean, the replacement has to be better, right? Right?

  5. I flew out of SFO today and opted out of the backscatter scan. I’d like to share my experience and conversation with the TSA officer. An open thread is a good idea.

  6. Wow. Having read his letter to the Administrator, I’m finding myself admiring and respecting Mr. Holt. But he’s a Republican!

    How can that be possible? My parameters have been confudulated! I’m struggling to reconcile the contradiction – I think I’ll have to mail him and simultaneously proclaim my bafflement and respect.

  7. I know this is serious and all, but I couldn’t stop reading Dr. Brenner as Dr. Bronner. I was waiting to see when they would say anything about how they should DILUTE the X-Rays, or how we shouldn’t submit to the scanners because we are ALL-ONE! ALL-ONE OR NONE!

  8. Not to defend the TSA. I have problems with the scans, but I don’t think radiation is one of them. Lets just to put this into perspective.

    The number I keep seeing quoted is that the dosage of one scan is equivalent to the radiation received from 5 minutes of air travel. So say its 20 times, that still comes to 100 minutes, under two hours of air travel radiation. Significant, but small compared to how little travelers concern themselves with air travel radiation in the first place.

    If that number was 1000x, or 10000x, then I’d start to be worried.

    1. Snowtred, the point is that there is no safe dose of ionizing radiation. None of it is safe. It also acts cumulatively. The more exposure over time the worse off you are. You can’t avoid living, but you can choose to limit your exposure. These scanners are one source that can easily be avoided. There is no safe dose. Opt out.

    2. The dosage alone isn’t the full story. Example: consider the amount of radiation you get from sunbathing for two minutes. Harmless right. Now, take that same dosage, and deliver it in two seconds via a needle-thin beam directed at your eyeball. I’ll bet it would sting a little.

    3. The problem with that comparison is that the backscatter radiation is unusually low-energy, which is good for the total energy applied during scanning, but bad in that it concentrates the effects of that energy on the surface of the skin.

      That is, unless I’m misunderstanding the process, which is entirely possible.

    4. The point that’s been made repeatedly in the comments on these stories is that the risk of being killed instantly in a ball of flame by a plane-hijacking terrorist is significantly less than being hit by lightning, and is about equal to or less likely than being killed by year after year of slow, torturous cancer after being scanned by one of these machines. If these machines aren’t enough of a health risk to worry about, then neither is the thing they’re trying to prevent. Metal detectors and sniffer dogs are safer, less intrusive and together they’re a damn sight more likely to find expertly concealed explosives than this bullshit.

      kiint, don’t compare this to abdominal X-rays and CT-scans. Those are used when there’s a direct threat or high likelihood of one to the person being scanned, i.e. they aren’t done without a specific suspicion. And even if we take it at face value, are we going to find one terrorist for every 100,000 scans? Well, no, we haven’t. So in what way is this radiation dosing justified?

    5. The TSA is comparing backscatter X-ray machines to other conventional exposures – that is, they’re treating it like a whole-body dose.

      But it’s not. It’s a skin dose. That means it’s concentrated in a small volume of your body, making it far less safe (and incidentally making the TSA incredibly dishonest in their comparison).

    6. Collimated soft (50Kvp) x-rays delivered directly to the skin and soft tissues below breast, testicles etc… Are concentrated in a small volume and create more difficult to repair double DNA breaks. The REM is based on a whole body dose not applicable to soft xrays that are very damaging.

      Airport scanners are a breast cancer heath risk. Mammography used the same energy x-rays as Airport scanners radiation beam is damaging to skin and breast tissues. About 5% of US have DNA repair issues (BRCA gene) and more prone to cancer. Some related links: Jeff

  9. @ Snowtred

    yep, a passenger would need to be scanned using a backscatter scanner, from both the front and the back, about 200,000 times to receive the amount of radiation equal to one typical CT cat-scan, or about 100,000 times to receive the amount of radiation equal to an abdominal X-ray.

    Don’t even get me started on every-day background radiation.

  10. How is it that x-raying people was deemed acceptable in the first place? Maybe some brilliant PR firm figured that if the public concentrates on naked bodies they don’t notice keywords: x-ray, radiation, and cancer. My understanding is that those scanners can’t even detect objects inside body cavities, so they only work on terrorists who are less determined than drug mules.

    Btw, Finnish prisoners often get a sort of weekend pass to re-adjust to freedom (believe it or not). Understandably prisoners and guards are not keen to go through full body cavity searches after every single leave, but without searches prisoners would come back colons full of contrabands. Solution: A chair that takes ultrasound images of various parts of the body. No radiation or naked pictures necessary, and that technology was probably developed with less funding than cost of one TSA boob-scanner.

  11. That’s whole body, but this kind of x-ray only penetrates a little, so it is only dosing a small percentage of you, effectively much higher than the claimed dosage.

  12. ….and just for some perspective folks, please don’t forget this is all still SECURITY THEATRE designed to make you LOOK OVER HERE and NOT OVER THERE, where there a thousand more insidious dangers associated with urban living knock entire hours off your life every day and you don’t even know it. The media and the government are all doing a fine, fine job right now of making us LOOK OVER HERE.

  13. Rush Holt is also one of the few members of congress who seem to understand the issues around electronic voting machines. I seriously wish we had more scientists and fewer lawyers being elected to congress.

  14. Despite spending my life huddled inside, I still had skin cancer before age 40. Limiting exposure isn’t just a posture for some of us.

    1. You had skin cancer BECAUSE you were always inside, not in spite of it! It has long been acknowledged that sunshine PREVENTS skin cancer. We need adequate vitamin D to prevent all kinds of cancer, including skin cancer.

      Everybody believes that the rate of skin cancer in Australia is so high because of all the sun they get. Not so. The people in Australia that get skin cancer are the office workers, while the life guards at the beaches have a very low rate of skin cancer!

      Anybody who doesn’t get enough sunshine (and hardly anybody does), needs to supplement with vitamin D3 (D2 is nearly useless). The FDA recommended 400 iU a day is ridiculous, you need at least 1000 iU a day (even better, 35 iU for every pound of body weight).

      1. I thought that it might have more to do with half of my relatives having multiple basal cell carcinomas and melanomas. Inbreeding is a terrible thing.

      2. Woooah. Are you even Australian?? What a load of crap! I am, and I’ve never met anyone with that misconception who lives here. If I said ‘office workers get more skin cancer than anyone due to a lack of Vitamin D’ I would be laughed out of the country!! Believe me, plenty of life guards, outdoor professional sport players, builders etc are getting sun cancer and in higher rates than OFFICE workers.

  15. Terahertz scanners aren’t perfect but operate at MUCH MUCH lower (sub-infrared) frequencies (thus, energies) than x-ray based machines (above ultraviolet) – which, like CT scanners, are known to create ‘excess carcinomas’.

    Apart from sweetheart deals, why x-rays? I’ve seen little discussion why TSA thinks it needs such high energies. Resolution? Penetration? If the Feds can give us food pyramids, they can find ways to inform the flying public IF THAT MATTERS.

    It’s your body, but while you can poo-poo the risks of a flight, or a TSA scan, or a dental x-ray, or a CT scan, they all add up. Who’s keeping track of your cumulative dose?

    Cancer rates aren’t going down. I suggest looking (like the pilot’s union did) to people you think you can trust for answers.

  16. I’d also like to see an open thread; I’m flying this wednesday. We’ll have to see what happens!

  17. The money trail between former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Rapiscan Systems has been well documented. Whether these things are effective or cause cancer is almost irrelevant. What is important is that generating fear continues to be an effective method of transferring large sums of public money into private hands.

  18. “Chairman of the House Select Intelligence Oversight Panel”

    Hilarious. There have been intelligence oversights galore, so he must be doing a great job!

  19. It in a way doesn’t matter how high the radiation dose is. What DOES matter is, that those TSA pigs can see people naked, and for what? Is it making anybody any safer? Not at all.

    And those aggressive ‘grope’-downs are meant to get people to agree to be scanned. These days, if you fly, you can’t win.

    I won’t fly until sanity has returned.

  20. No, the lifeguards have more cancer than the office workers. And the surfers have YET MORE cancer because they get their creams washed off in the surf by being in it all the time.

    I don’t argue about Vitamin D being good for you, but don’t try to peddle Vitamin D to me along with a hole in the ozone layer and massive doses of UVB. I ain’t got enough skin pigment to fend that off thanks.

  21. ” excessive x-ray exposure can act as a cancer rate multiplier, which is why” the medical industrial complex really wants everyone to go thru these things all the time. more business..

  22. Simple solution, take the train..

    Or for those who watched David Letterman on Late show Monday night, he did a spoof about taking the bus (shades of Greyhound).

  23. ursulamargrit, I’m from Australia and I can tell you that everyone I know that has gotten skin cancer has at one stage spent a lot of time in the sun, and it’s always in an area of the skin that was exposed. Lifesavers cover up and use a lot of sunscreen, therefore the rates are low.
    Anyway, since this comment is getting off topic – you wouldn’t get me through one of those scanners. If more people refused and went for the grope then the whole system would get bogged down.

  24. Let’s not loose perspective here. There is much more at stake than radiation exposure. The TSA now coerces the traveling public into allowing electronic strip searches by threat of (what amounts to) sexual assault. The risk they would have us believe they protect us from is so infinitesimal as to fall somewhere between suffering asteroid impact and getting hit by lightning — even in the complete absence of any TSA measures. Pilot error, equipment failure, and even weather pose much greater risk to the flying public than the eventuality of a guy placed on a plane by the well-meaning “we thought he’d lead us to bigger fish” DHS — even if that guy subsequently tries to light his underwear on fire.

    The TSA is a joke, second only to those travelers that believe themselves to be safer by virtue of the TSA’s endless pursuit of protection against ever more bizarre and convoluted worse-case scenarios, based on analysis by people who stand only to gain by promoting the perception of threat.

    None of this makes us safer. To the extent that the activities of the TSA divert funds and attention away from more worthwhile measures, it actually puts us more at risk.

  25. Ever wonder why msm is covering this? They are not known for independent journalism so what is it? Oh I know…to strike FEAR in the hearts of TV watchers. I WILL fly and I will have NO FEAR as fear is what feeds sick minds. I suggest everyone buy a ticket to somewhere and opt out in unison FEARLESSLY and I’m a grandma…which means I can barely read the 2 words required to type to post LOL

  26. I think people need to be cautious when using the Xray argument. The risks are going to be very small, but could be significant – especially considering the ~100 million passengers being zapped. It should be a concern but probably not the major concern.

    The problem is that the millimetre wave alternatives will be ‘safe’ since they don’t use ionizing radiation. If radiation is your main problem then gate rape will continue.

  27. The Safe Way for Airline Travelers to Protest TSA Genital Grope & Scan Is To Just “politely” Opt for the Pat Down (don’t make a fuss, be silent). It is the Airline DELAYS that will change policy. And because you are accepting the TSA’s own Option, you aren’t liable for fines, Indefinite Detention orTORTURE. Don’t be a Hero, just quietly take the Pat Down. The TSA won’t fault you for selecting the option they give you. Be polite to the TSA officer-Just doing their job.

  28. The dose issue has three main parts:

    1) The Soft x-rays dose is concentrated in the skin. Making the effective does to the skin perhaps 15 x greater. 10# skin 150# person.

    2) Soft x-rays interact with tissues (more damage) than hard x-rays like used in CT-scanners.

    3) Soft x-rays break more phosphorus bonds (a component of DNA) than hard CT- x-rays or random back ground radiation.

    4) The bright laser like x-ray beam used by the back scatter machine concentrates the energy in a small area quickly breaking DNA bonds. The damage is done in a few millionths of a second. Because the beam is moving rapidly the average dose is small. If the scanning where to stop you would get a burn.

    5) Don’t try this but it would be like rapidly scanning a laser pointer across the eyes. The average would be low but the damage to the eye would happen very quickly.

    To learn more check out the RockyFlatsGear channel on youtube.

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