Being the avid technologist and traveller that I am, the concern around the safety of airport scanners is a topic that I pay close attention to. In fact I’ve even been known to share this with custom agents when passing through their care. Thankfully as I’ve mentioned in a previous post the use of backscatter X-ray machines – a type that’s manufactured by Rapiscanhaven’t seen as wide use as their millimeter wave counterparts. Unfortunately questions are now being raised after a number of errors were discovered among the device inspection reports that showed radiation levels ten times what was expected. The machines in question are being retested by the American Transportation Security Administration (TSA) who are responsible for their upkeep, however they are presently downplaying the reports as nothing more than math errors. Thankfully with even these results a person still runs a risk of ten in a million developing cancer from an airport scanner, which by all accounts is still far less than what is typically absorbed by a person each day in natural background radiation.

But it does raise doubts about such claims, and when you begin to factor in issues like frequency, age, and possible innate sensitivity to radiation as the Director of Radiological Research at Columbia University cautions, even the millimeter wave X-rays pose a possible risk, and should be considered by those passing through an airport deploying these measures at their security gates. Given that the TSA is going to continue championing their use thanks to the benefits they provide from speed of screening to the prevention of terrorism, it falls on us to push our respective government officials to mandate the highest levels of safety for these devices. Presently this is entailing the retraining of personnel in their use and maintenance, and is posting the results of their retests indicating almost one third returning some type of error – however I had little success finding anything about these recent results there.

It’ll be interesting on our next visit to Europe to see whether their use is still prohibited, the Union having officially done so in November 2011, leaving the United States and a handful of other countries using them.