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The Real Airport Security Debate: Would You Rather Be Groped or Zapped?

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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.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

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22 Comments

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huffanpuff40

Boycott the airlines. travel by other means.

December 05 2010 at 8:21 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
cinorjer

The reason TSA refuses to back down on ever more intrusive screening and why the White House supports the TSA is simple. Politically, they're terrified that after relaxing any rules, some plane will go down and the MSM and Republicans backed by Fox News will scream about how it's all Obama's fault. Even if it's an accident, Fox will yell, "Was it a terrorist?" before the smoke clears. And all those people yelling about how terrible TSA is now, will line up to condemn them for not providing a 100% guarantee of safety. In other words, it's why you can't put the government in charge of taking care of us and expect anything other than ever increasing control of our lives.

November 25 2010 at 12:02 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
punnster

I'd rather not be groped or zapped, but would want EVERYONE else to.

November 23 2010 at 2:01 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
ba44in

Ok it Could cause cancer! I Could get hit by a car, bus, truck or a bullet. I will go thru the scanner and even get a body serch. I would rather know that the plane is safe. but then again it could hit a flock of ducks and go down. if you don't like it don't take a plane. Drive or stay home less unhappy people out there is better for all of us traveling.

November 22 2010 at 6:58 PM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to ba44in's comment
slappo@mac.com

But that's the issue, the plane isn't any safer. TSA agents have said that, security experts have said that. It's only your perception that the plane is safer, and frankly, your perception of personal safety is a very subjective criterion for deciding whether or not the 4th Amendment should be violated. I, as an American, have the RIGHT to travel freely within the US uninhibited by the government, absent of any suspicion of malice. Maybe you should travel by some other means.

November 30 2010 at 2:50 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
AL

It depends which terrorist you fear the most, the dictatorial policies of this bunch in Washington or a few demented religious fanatics. Our troops face them each day and they are ,due to the "rules of engagement", not allowed to shoot them until you have been shot if you're still able to shoot. Any one who has the will to wantonly kill the infidel will find a way and scanners and pat=downs are a waste of time, it only serves to test the will of the citizens to tolerate illegal search, and so far it is a resounding success.

November 22 2010 at 4:42 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
John Vilvens

They are patting down children, old people and all in the name of security. How many children have tried blowing up a plane. How many grandmas have tried blowing up a plane. Check the people that fit profile of terriorist. This is not the time to be politicially correct. This is a matter of security

November 22 2010 at 1:48 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
koos458

Somehow, everyone has skipped a closer examination of the corrupt politics behind the adoption of x-ray scanners during both the past and present administrations.

November 22 2010 at 12:28 PM Report abuse +7 rate up rate down Reply
ettu

Am listening to Napolitano at this very moment, and I must say her attitude has changed somewhat from the dictatorial "if you don't like the procedure, find some other mode of transportation," to a little bit more empathetic toward the dignity of prospective passengers. Geraldo Rivera reported yesterday that the devices being used to scan our bodies (with very possible damage to your long term health) was being touted by a well connected source awhile back, and now his business interests have the contract to furnish these devices at the cost of millions to the taxpayer. All the while, experts from other countries are repeatedly saying we are once again on the wrong road, and these devices are not very effective. As they say, FOLLOW THE MONEY. This is all for show folks, because we no longer have common sense, intelligent, and HONEST people, making these decisions. We only have those who are obsessed with growing their own power and wealth. A small inroad into ousting this deceit and corruption was made in the 2010 election. It must be continued in 2012. When the AVERAGE age of those in the DEM/LIB/PROG power in DC is 70, it seems likely that they have been around far to long, and have undoubtedly, when looking at the condition of our country, been working solely for themselves. The average age of REP/MOD/CONSV/IND is 50. A number of those, too, must go. If this is supposed to be our best and brightest, we are doomed.

November 22 2010 at 12:20 PM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply
pianomanref

People, get over it! Unless you are an alien from outer space, you don't look any different than half the population. We all look alike under our clothes....well, more or less. Your privacy can handle this. Chill out.

November 22 2010 at 12:11 PM Report abuse -5 rate up rate down Reply
drdave415

Why can't we have flights that carry just people. No carry on. No luggage. I can do without my stuff for 2 hours. Airlines should team up with Fedex or UPS to ship luggage. Imagine if your bags were picked up at your house and delivered to your destination.

November 22 2010 at 11:54 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

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