back to article US Senator: 'Retest airport scanner safety'

A top Republican lawmaker is poised to introduce a bill in the US Senate that would require the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to hire an independent lab to study the health effects of backscatter x-ray passenger-screening machines – aka pervscanners – at airports, and to ensure that ticket-holders know of their rights to …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Not a snowball chance in Hell

    ...of this bill getting passed but it's typical grandstanding by a talking head.

    1. Turtle


      "Not a snowball chance in Hell of this bill getting passed but it's typical grandstanding by a talking head."

      I would expect that you are quite mistaken about this. If there are studies which show that this machine is dangerous, there will be a great clamor among people who feel that they might be exposed to it - and that group of people, comprising of anyone who might ever be in an airport, number in the hundreds of thousands, if not more. If there are *any* alternatives to this particular species of equipment, then it will be replaced, as people will rightly demand that security measure not cause cancer. (Cf. "The cure is worse than the disease.")

      In fact, if the machine turns out to be harmful, the FDA might well prohibit its use under any circumstance, irrespective of a law being passed by Congress or not; as the question of the safety of such devices falls squarely within the FDA's remit and they would have the authority to prohibit the use of such machines.

      Incidentally, whatever a US Senator *is*, what a US Senator is *not*, is a "talking head". Simply by virtue of there being so few of them, and secondarily by the length of their terms (six years - an eternity in politics), their actions and opinions have real importance.

      1. eforce

        I think he meant that "special interests" would never let this pass.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Scanners: Driven and Motivated by Self-Interest

    or should that be interest in others?

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    radiation-free screening technology?

    A patdown in the dark? Not for me, thanks.

  4. Turtle

    Not Universally Accepted?

    "They employ low-level ionizing radiation, which some studies have claimed can damage DNA and possibly cause cancer and other nastiness."

    Does this mean that there are people (and by "people" I mean "competent scientists and medical researchers") who claim that ionizing radiation does *not* damage DNA and (by this mechanism) cause cancer and damage the organism in other ways? I would have thought that this effect of ionizing radiation was both well-known and widely if not universally accepted. Is this not so?

  5. MacGyver

    No thanks, I'll choose the grouping, thank you.

    Well that's one way to reduce the number of people on social security and medicare, irradiate people over and over until their DNA is fried, then in 10 or 15 years they will all develop whole body aggressive cancer and die quickly.

    Some people don't like flying or can't afford it, so those people will be left, and they can be the ones doing the laundry, cooking and cleaning for the 1%, by then public schools would have been cut enough to really only train people to be service workers anyway. (Sorry my wife has been watching a lot of Downton Abbey, it makes me angry.)

    At least it makes us absolutely and completely safe when flying. /sarcasm

    1. Mephistro

      I was bitten by a radioactive tourist!

      And Now I've become TOURISTMAN!!!

      1. Mako


        What's your superpower? The ability to get free upgrades at will?

        1. John70


          It's priority access to the perv scanners.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Even better!

          "What's your superpower? The ability to get free upgrades at will?"

          Nope. He gets unlimited frequent flier miles at will!

  6. b166er

    This won't go anywhere, they couldn't afford the lawsuit if it were demonstrated that DHS had caused actual bodily harm to millions of people.

    1. Grease Monkey Silver badge

      Except that's rather the point. If they demonstrate it's harmful now the legal bill will be much lower than if they do it in twenty years.

  7. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    Where US politicians are concerned.

    Whose paying off Collins for this? The MM scanner mfgs? IIRC Qinitiq are players in this market and I'm sure they understand how to "lobby" for the right sort of legislation.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Why not place such kit at Congress

      then EVERYONE who want to go there MUST go through these devices, no exceptions.

      also for entering the Senate Floor, if they are soo uber safe, then everyone should have no issues whatsoever about installing them (For the Safety Of the American Public)

      guaranteed they would be voted down and refused outright on grounds of danger of inducing cancer!!!

      one rule for us one rule for them!

      1. Grease Monkey Silver badge

        Except of course it wouldn't work like that. I visited congress and the house of representatives once. In both buildings I had to go through metal detectors. Guess what? Those totally trustworthy politicians didn't.

  8. blackcat


    When I flew from Boston Logan only blokes were going through the perv scanner. Women were being scanned the old way. Heck, if someone really wants to look at a fuzzy B&W pic of my old fella they can.

    Plus if people are worried about radiation why are they flying?!???!! How many bananas is a trans-atlantic flight worth?

    1. Thomas 18

      TSA operators exposure to radiation

      It's one thing to walk through a scanner 10 / 20 times a year. It's another to be operating 1000 scans a day for 300 days a year.

      Don't imagine giving TSA operatives a lead apron would engender trust though. Remember TSA agents are at least 85% human beings too.

      1. blackcat

        But the operator wandered off...

        When I went through the guy told me to stand in the scanner then wandered off to chat to his buddy. I had to ask him if I was done! I'm not sure they even looked at my wang.

        It seems new toys, same old lax security.

      2. John Smith 19 Gold badge

        @Thomas 18

        "It's one thing to walk through a scanner 10 / 20 times a year. It's another to be operating 1000 scans a day for 300 days a year."

        True. But most of the TSA staff I've seen around airports came with fairly substantial amounts of natural "radiation shielding."

      3. Zippy the Pinhead

        I believe that 85% figure is a little high don't you think?

    2. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

      The Banana Equivalent Dose is a little misleading in this case

      Potassium-40 (the radioactive element that occurs in trace amounts in bananas) decays via beta-decay, giving off an energetic beta particle (in other words, a high speed electron).

      X-rays penetrate the skin and can cause ionisation of internal tissues. The problem is the energy of the individual photons, not the fact that the beam is 'low power'. The low power bit just means there are fewer of them, not that each individually carries less energy.

      Doing the numbers, an x-ray photon carries between 120 eV and 120 keV. The beta particles emitted by decay of radioactive potassium-40 in bananas have a maximum of 133MeV*, this is three orders of magnitude greater than the maximum energy each of these X-ray photons can convey, so I think it would be fair to say that this technology is fairly harmless, as far as radiation risk goes.

      In terms of risk to society, there are a number of other issues, such as creeping authoritarianism in airports, the general intrusiveness of these screening measures, the threat to personal privacy, and the fuel that it gives to those who wish to control others through scaremongering (you are orders of magnitude more likely to be killed crossing the road than by a terrorist attack). It is for these reasons that such scanners should be considered carefully before being put into widespread use, so the senator in question would appear to be going after the right target, but for the wrong reason. Unfortunately, the upshot may well be that the scanners are found to be perfectly safe by independant experts, and then green-lighted on these grounds, neatly side-stepping all of the privacy and control issues that otherwise may have been highlighted.

      *(this may vary due to the energy imparted to the antineutrino also emitted in the decay - this particle is essentially harmless so can be disregarded; the likelhood of it intereacting with any matter in your body, or indeed, the rest of the solar system, is vanishingly small)

      1. Thomas 18

        'low power'

        Doesn't mean low compared to a banana it means low compared to a chest x-ray. While the type of radioactive particle is important the number of them is a lot more important. That's why you worry when your Geiger counter turns into a steady stream not because its loud.

  9. Christoph

    Labratory tests, real world operation

    The tests might well show they're "safe". In the laboratory, newly assembled.

    The exposure is out in the real world, in uncontrolled conditions, wrongly operated, worn out, unmaintained or wrongly maintained with the wrong parts, probably not even cleaned of accumulated dirt and dust inside.

    If they are so completely safe why have they refused to allow independent testing? What are they hiding?

    Look what happened with electronic voting machines: The manufacturers stated that they were completely secure, but refused independent verification. When researchers got hold of some, they found that they were riddled with security holes.

    Now the scanner manufacturers state that the scanners are completely safe, but refuse independent verification.

  10. Conor

    Tourist impact

    It's just as well the US dollar is so cheap at the moment. Given the amount of skipping and jumping you have to go through to be allowed enter the US and spend money - ESTA is reasonable but then you have to do APIS yourself now, often through a website that doesn't ruddy well work, and then get prodded poked intimidated and maybe irradiated - I'm surprised many tourists haven't just said No. Sod off. Going to Portugal before it goes bankrupt.

    I think the radiation exposure from being at high altitude for 7 hours is about the same as an X-Ray - 30uSv. Wikipedia says the exposure from the backscatter scanner is 200 times less than that. The health impact from the psychological stress of being put through the scanner is likely worse :-)

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Keeping the voters happy

    I don't think it's lobbying, I think it's keeping voters happy. Defending freedom and all that. It looks good, but makes bugger all difference in the real world.

    (Maine votes for Democratic presidents but both Senators are New England Republicans, on the left of the party. Snowe is safe until death, Collins has to compete.)

  12. Melanie Winiger

    Does it really improve security?

    Using X-Rays in a non-medical environment on humans doesn't feel "right" to me. Who calibrates and checks the machines and how often? Which independent agency regularly tests them.

    Too many unanswered questions for my liking.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    So the DHS must commission a study against its beloved pervy scanners?

    And they get to pick the "independent lab" to commission, as well. Nobody see any problem with this? At all? No? Carry on then.

  14. ravenviz

    Not for me

    I'd rather strip naked than use the machine.

    Staff at Schipol however were very polite when I declined to use their machine recently. But I didn't see any signs about my rights to refuse and the security guard did not say I had options, I just happened to know I had rights to an alternative, even if only due to the fact that at Heathrow there are signs up!

  15. Adalat

    And your problem is...?

    "...For a typical cross-country flight in a commercial airplane, you are likely to receive 2 to 5 millirem (mrem) of radiation, less than half the radiation dose you receive from a chest x-ray. People in the United States receive an average of 360 mrem of radiation per year from natural and man-made radiation sources, which includes cosmic radiation exposure during commercial flights. "

    I wonder how this compares with the x-ray scanners?

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    How do these machines compare to Cornwall?

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