Airport scanners raise the ceiling on a fear of flying

May 6, 2010

Living in England has inevitable consequences, ones shared with most of Northern Europe. The winter is long and dark, and, in South West England, also wet and cold.

Living in England has inevitable consequences, ones shared with most of Northern Europe. The winter is long and dark, and, in South West England, also wet and cold. We are unable to wait until spring to lighten our spirits. We seek more daylight, more sun. So along with the French, the Dutch, the Belgians, the Germans, and the Scandinavians, we make the long pilgrimage south.

Being radiologists, the “SAD syndrome” is particularly severe. We travel to work in the dark, spend all day in the dark, and travel home in the dark. And being radiologists, we are blissfully ignorant of the warnings of our dermatology colleagues about the dangers of solar energy. Yes, of course I use factor 15 to 20 sunblock and I wear a hat. But I also lie in the sun and soak up its warming rays. I need to relax. The journey to the sun was already too stressful; I have already worried myself half to death about issues much closer to my own specialty.

Like many left-of-center conservatives, I was convinced that the media were right: the world had become a dangerous place. Terrorists are around every corner, and slightly left-of-center radiologists are almost certainly their prime target. I was comfortable with the introduction of full-body scans at airports. I am a scientist and have read in detail about the nature of the radiation. Apparently they use one of two different types of scanning systems:

Millimeter-wave technology that produces lowlevel radiofrequency energy with values measured in terahertz (tHz). Unlike x-rays and UV rays, mm-wave photons do not carry enough energy to break chemical bonds or ionize atoms and molecules; they possess even less energy than visible light photons.

Backscatter x-ray technology. To a radiologist, this is even more straightforward. Understanding the Compton Effect was an early lesson of physics lectures, and the absorbed dose is extremely low.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offers further reassurance: “Most of the scanners deliver less radiation than a passenger is likely to receive from cosmic rays while airborne.” Scanned passengers are likely to absorb only 0.1 to 5 μSv of radiation. So my only worry was whether half an hour in the gym would be enough to avoid an outbreak of giggles among airport security staff as my somewhat less than Adonis-like physique presented itself for review. That is, until our family debate about the Shock Doctrine.

Always more susceptible after a good dinner and a few glasses of wine, the argument that my son presented of the use of global threat and disaster as a means of manipulating society seemed compelling.

How much did I really understand about mmwave technology? After all, it is measured in tHz and that in itself is fairly scary. My cursory review of the literature was shown to be exactly that, and a rather more in-depth assessment revealed some legitimate health concerns.

Mathematical modeling studies show that tHz fields may interact with double-stranded DNA in a way to produce nonlinear reactions or resonances. These have the potential to unzip DNA, creating bubbles in the double strand that could significantly interfere with processes such as gene expression and DNA replication.

I was not reassured by the somewhat bland platitude that currently deployed body scanners operate in an mm-wave region above the submillimeter or tHz region investigated in the study I was looking at. So, coming from a country where individual choice is paraded as a human right, I was mulling over whether to request mm-wave or x-ray backscatter.

There is little doubt that the doses from the backscatter x-ray systems being proposed for airport security purposes are said to be very low, but by now I was calculating the cumulative dose for a frequent flyer. I was weighing up the pros and cons of refusing the body scan altogether and submitting myself to an intimate body search, but the very thought of the rubber glove induced a serious attack of irritable bowel syndrome. I resolved to pack a lead coat in my carryon luggage-although this left only enough room for a tiny pair of Speedos dating back to the 1970s.

In the event, it was only my wife who was searched and neither of us was submitted to a body scan. She has this innocent smile that is always interpreted as an attempt to hide evil intent. Nobody was the slightest bit interested in the lead coat, although the Speedos produced barely stifled giggles not only at airport security but also throughout the holiday...