TSA Workers to Be Tested for Radiation Exposure at 100 Airports

By Ellen Cannon

The first clue suggesting the TSA was indeed going to test for radiation exposure among its workers came last month when the TSA requested government vendors to provide wearable personal dosimeters. These devices measure exposure to radiation. Unlike member states of the European Union, which have stopped using body scanner machines, fearing potential exposure over time to passengers and workers, TSA testing for exposure will focus only on airport security officers to see if they are being exposed to dangerous levels of radiation while working the scanners.

John Pistole, TSA administrator and TSA spokesperson Nico Menendez have offered explanations as to why passangers will not be tested nor will body scanner machines be re-tested. According to Menendez and Pistole,”Scanners have been tested and approved by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health as well as by the U.S. Army Public Health Command.” Pistole has stated that “he has received a draft report from the inspector general of the Homeland Security Department that confirmed the conclusion of previous independent studies that the scanners are safe for passengers.”(Hugo Martin, www.latimes.com1/16/2012)

The TSA decision and framing of the issue of cancer potential from airport screening machinery differs from that of the European Union On November 15, 2011. The E.U. announced that use of X-Ray body scanners will be prohibited. Fearing any potential for security measures increasing cancer risk, the European Union declared that it will switch to scanners that use radio frequency waves which have not been linked to cancer. The new ruling was administered by the European Commission, which enforces policies of the 27 nation member nations of the European Union. The Commission stated that the new ruling was adopted “in order not to risk jeopardizing citizen health and safety. (Ellen Cannon, examiner.com 11/16/2011)

Body scanners have resulted in significant public controversy in the U.S. Much of that controversy pitted concerns over national security terror risks with privacy and health and safety. (Michael Grabell,ProPubica.com)More recently, health concerns have emerged as an additional issue regarding the use of body scanners in U.S. airports.

Regarding cancer concerns, A ProPublica/PBS News Hour investigation in November, 2011 found that “X-ray body scanners use ionizing radiation, a form of energy that has been shown to damage DNA and cause cancer.” The investigation did emphasize that the levels of radiation were “extremely low, equivalent to the radiation a person would receive in a few minutes of flying.” The investigation further noted that “several research studies have concluded that a small number of cancer cases would result from scanning hundreds of millions of passengers a year (ProPublica, 10/15/11)

The upcoming testing by TSA will only examine radiation exposure at 100 airports and only of TSA workers who run the machines or work near the machines. The x-Ray scanners banned by the EU are presently used at Chicago O’Hare International Airport. Other metropolitan airports that use the scanners banned by the EU include Los Angeles International Airport and JFK International Airport.

The TSA’s technical term for these scanners is “backscatter “scanners. Half of U.S. airports use “millimeter-wave-scanners” which like the EU’s are based on radio frequency waves. American airports using this technology include, Dallas, Atlanta, and San Francisco.

Critics of the TSA support the idea of testing TSA workers but they remain concerned as to the potential health risks for passengers who are not being tested. “James Babb, co-founder of “We Won’t Fly”, a consumer advocacy group stated, “We still have no idea how much radiation is being imposed on travelers by a properly functioning machine A malfunctioning machine could be particularly dangerous.” (www.latimes.com1/16/2012)

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