New Analysis Finds Airport Scanner Risk Extremely Low

March 29, 2011

Are airport scanners safe? In another recent analysis on the topic, researchers at the University of California have estimated the cancer risk from one kind of scanners is extremely low.

Are airport scanners safe? In another recent analysis on the topic, researchers at the University of California have estimated the cancer risk from one kind of scanners is extremely low.

“The amount of radiation in these scans is so low that you don’t have to be concerned about it,” Rebecca Smith-Bindman, MD, a professor of radiology at the University of California, San Francisco, said in a statement. She and Pratik Mehta, an undergraduate at University of California, Berkeley, made the calculations, and the analysis appeared online yesterday in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine.

Their analysis comes on the heels of a pair of articles published in April’s print issue of Radiology. In one such article, David Brenner, PhD, DSc, director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University Medical Center in New York, found that the individual risks from backscatter scanners are sufficiently low, and they are safe for most who fly only a few times a year. (Risk is higher for frequent flyers, and Brenner did caution that long-term consequences in unknown.) In the second analysis, David A. Schauer, ScD, CHP, executive director of the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements, estimated someone could go through the scanner 2,500 times a year without exceeding recommended exposure.

In this most recent analysis, Smith-Bindman and Mehta said the amount of radiation absorbed in a single scan is about the same as what the average person absorbs every three to nine minutes on the ground under normal circumstances. Further, a person would absorb 100 times more radiation flying on an airplane than standing in a scanner, they said.

There’s one major caveat though. All this assumes the scanners are being used properly, Smith-Bindman said. There is potential for software and human error, and Smith-Bindman said the TSA should allow for further testing and monitoring of the devices in the field.

There are about 500 of these backscatter scanners, which use low energy X-rays, in 78 U.S. airports.