Groped by a TSA agent or zapped by harmful radiation?
That may well be the real airport screening debate. But in the past weeks, there's been an uproar in the media only over the new intrusive examinations being used at airport screening by the Transportation Security Administration. And this past weekend, the Obama administration officials sent signals that these policies could be eased. On "Face the Nation," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she wouldn't submit
to such a pat-down: "I mean, who would?" Yet on CNN, John Pistole, the TSA administrator, said, "No, we are not changing the policies because of that, because of the risks that have been identified because of the current threat stream." Yet hours later, he throttled back on the rhetoric, telling Politico
that screening procedures "will be adapted as conditions warrant" to make them "as minimally invasive as possible, while still providing the security that the American people want and deserve." And during the NATO summit in Lisbon on Saturday, President Barack Obama said
, "You have to constantly refine and measure whether what we're doing is the only way to assure the American people's safety. And you also have to think through, are there ways of doing it that are less intrusive?"
This all suggests the administration may be worrying about a popular backlash against the more intrusive pat-downs that began three weeks ago. This controversy has been fueled by such pat-down horror stories as the one involving
a 61-year-old fellow who survived bladder cancer and who uses a ursotomy bag. On his way to Orlando, Florida, he was searched by a TSA agent who hit the bag, causing it to break open. Urine spilled and dribbled down his shirt to his pants, and ran down his leg. (This episode raises the question: Do we really need to have pee-soaked passengers in order to keep terrorists at bay?)
The fuss over pat-downs seems to have displaced the fuss over the full-body scanner images that can show more than TSA agents really need to know about passengers. (Travelers declining the full-body scans are being subjected to the new, too-close-for-comfort physical exams.) Yet the true worry may not be an invasion of privacy but chromosome damage and cancer.
Last April, four scientists at the University of California-San Francisco sent John Holdren, Obama's top science adviser, a letter
declaring their "concerns about the potential serious health risks." The four scientists -- a biochemist, a cancer specialist and two X-ray experts -- noted, "This is an urgent situation as these X-ray scanners are rapidly being implemented as a primary
screening step for all air travel passengers." They maintained that that the dose of radiation delivered by these machines would appear to be safe "if it were distributed" throughout the traveler's entire body. But, they contended, because most of the dose "is delivered to the skin and the underlying tissue ... the dose to the skin may be dangerously high." This quartet of scientists said that "real independent safety data" about these scanners "do not exist." They insisted that the devices could cause breast cancer in a "fraction of the female population," damage white blood cells, induce cancer within HIV and cancer patients, and cause "mutagenic effects" -- that is, chromosome damage that could lead to cancer, particularly among older travelers. They also asserted that men are "at risk for sperm mutagenesis." They added, "The risk of radiation emission to children and adolescents does not appear to have been fully evaluated," and they suggested that pregnant women could be at risk. The four asked, "have the effects of the radiation on the cornea and thymus been determined?" And they raised the possibility of a glitch in the scanner's hardware or software causing "an intense radiation dose to a single spot on the skin."
In other words, oh boy, there's a lot to worry about:
There is good reason to believe that these scanners will increase the risk of cancer to children and other vulnerable populations. We are unanimous in believing that the potential health consequences need to be rigorously studied before these scanners are adopted. Modifications that reduce radiation exposure need to be explored as soon as possible.
They called on Holdren to set up an impartial panel of experts to study the potential health consequences of the scanners.
By the way, there are now almost 400 body scanners deployed at 68 airports. By the end of 2011, that number is supposed to reach about 1,000 machines, with 2 out of 3 passengers being screened by these devices.
The White House did not set up that independent scientific panel. It took Holdren three months to reply to the scientists. In July, he wrote them a short note
, asserting that "the issues you have raised have been studied extensively by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ... for many years, as well as by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)." Yet he didn't refer to any particular studies or tests. He noted that FDA and DHS representatives would "craft a detailed and clear description of the evidence for the safety of the devices in question, addressing all of the points raised in your letter."
On Nov. 8, the White House posted that FDA/DHS response.
These agencies essentially said, no problem. They claimed that "the issue had been studied extensively for many years" by federal agencies and that the dose to the skin is "at least 89,000 times lower than the annual limit." But John Sedat, who leads the four UCSF scietnists, says
this response is in "error" and based on "many misconceptions." Sedat and the three other scientists are preparing a response to the response.
But this matter deserves more than a ping-pong match. Instead, the National Academy of Sciences or another independent body ought to convene the inquiry the UCSF scientists requested. By the way, the UCSF scientists are not alone. David Brenner, the head of Columbia University's Center for Radiological Research, who helped write the guidelines for security scanners, says
he wouldn't have approved those rules had he known the scanners would be used on almost every air traveler (though he doesn't agree with the UCSF scientists' claim that that these machines could cause cancer, prompt sperm cell mutations, and harm fetuses). Earlier this year, Brenner said: "There really is no other technology around where we're planning to X-ray such an enormous number of individuals. It's really unprecedented in the radiation world."
In the meantime, the TSA is marching ahead with its plan to install full-body scanners in airports across the country. And if you're asked to enter one, what's a person who can't navigate the periodic table to do? Do you trust your government when it says there's nothing to fret about? Or is it prudent to take heed of this not-yet-resolved dispute between the UCSF scientists and the agencies and decline politely -- and face a prodding in the privates?
It's a no-brainer: I'd rather accept a demeaning squeeze than a dose of radiation -- before being allowed to proceed to friendly skies. In either case, I'll be thinking: The terrorists won.
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