Airport full-body scanners mean better security...but at the expense of safety?

Looking Through You

Years ago (pre 9/11), singer-songwriter Laurie Anderson suggested that when flying, you should take a bomb along with you. Her reasoning: The chance that there’s a bomb on any single airplane is small. But the chance of there being TWO bombs on a plane is extremely small.

These days I’m sure Ms. Anderson is either taking the bus or taking other measures to ensure her safety on air flights. Since the Christmas Day incident of the “underwear bomber,” another season of beefed up security is upon us.

Question is…is it harmful to your health?

Image problem

Nearly 80 percent of Americans say they wouldn’t mind getting a full-body scan at the airport. That’s according to a recent Gallup Poll that also found that the high-tech screening method makes women feel somewhat more uncomfortable than men.

The image is the issue. The image details aren’t crisp, so it’s not exactly a completely nude image. But it’s close enough to cause concern.

Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officials have promised that images won’t be stored and the imaging equipment is not connected to the Internet. But a privacy advocacy group called Electronic Privacy Information Center reports that Homeland Security documents show that images CAN be saved and accessed through the Internet.

The TSA denies the report, claiming those capabilities are only for the testing phase. So it comes down to this: Whom do you trust?

Meanwhile, these are very expensive scanners, costing anywhere from $100,000 to $200,000 each. And yet, scanner use can’t guarantee 100% security. According to a report from a defense-research company, explosives made from liquids, powdered chemicals and plastics can’t always be detected. In addition, explosives can’t be detected when they’re ingested or inserted into body cavities.

So the scanners might improve air travel security to some degree. But research reveals alarming potential health risks.

The scanners use terahertz wave radiation (THz). The waves don’t have enough energy to break chemical bonds and that’s a plus. But according to a study from Los Alamos National Laboratory, THz waves create resonant effects that may interfere with DNA replication.

A 2008 study from Israel came to similar conclusions. In the journal Radiation Research, the researchers note that low power density of THz radiation prompts instability in DNA. They write: “These findings, if verified, may suggest that such exposure may result in an increased risk of cancer.”

So once again, a new technology is being embraced without adequate safety testing. Does the full-body scan harm children? Is it safe for pregnant women? What about frequent flyers? What about cancer patients?

Those questions won’t be answered anytime soon. Nevertheless, by the end of this year, nearly 200 full-body scanners will be installed and in use in airports all over the U.S.

Apparently some airports will offer a choice between a full-body scan and a physical pat down. I’m sure a pat down can be degrading, but at least you can be certain it won’t mess with your DNA or enable the growth of any existing cancer cells in your body.

To Your Good Health,

Jenny Thompson


“Documents Refute TSA Privacy Claims on Body Scanners, Group Says” Jaikumar Vijayan, Computerworld, 1/11/10,
“DNA Breathing Dynamics in the Presence of a Terahertz Field” arXiv, Cornell University, 10/28/09,
“Terahertz Radiation Increases Genomic Instability in Human Lymphocytes” Radiation Research, Vol. 170, No. 2, August 2008,

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