EU bans nude-o-scopes as cancer risk; TSA doesn’t care

The European Union has issued a ruling this week prohibiting the use of one type of body-imaging scanners at airports. The ruling was handed down based on evidence that the machines are producing a type of ionizing radiation that would likely cause a small number of cancer cases in the passengers scanned. The EU has decreed that causing cancer in airline passengers is a step too far in the name of aviation security.

The TSA seems to disagree.

While not commenting directly on the topic the TSA spokesman indicated that all technology is rigorously tested and that only the most advanced technologies are used. But no direct comments on the fact that multiple scientific researchers claim the systems are harmful to passengers.

The same spokesman also noted this horribly depressing "success" statistic:

Since January 2010, advanced imaging technology has detected more than 300 dangerous or illegal items on passengers in U.S. airports nationwide.

I’m going to ignore, at least for the moment, that the TSA seems excited to claim credit for discovery of "illegal" items which are not a threat to aviation security and which is wholly outside the scope of their charter. Let’s pretend that every single one of the 300 items was actually a threat to aviation security. Even then, the numbers are only one detection every other day. That’s not actually all that many. Even more troubling, the statistic doesn’t reveal any details, particularly what specific threats were discovered and if they would have been discovered by a traditional metal detector. Odds are they would have been.

So we’ve got the TSA using hardware that increases the cancer risk in passengers at a level which is statistically significant enough that a block of major, developed nations has banned the gear. And they’re doing so to realize a diminutive number of "threats" of which many are actually nothing of the sort. And of which nearly all would have likely been similarly detected by the legacy equipment at a faster scanning rate.

But that’s OK, right? Because you’re probably not the passenger who is going to get cancer from their gear. That same gear that is supposedly "rigorously tested" and yet which the TSA initially wouldn’t release the test results for and which they had to re-test because of significant issues (not surprisingly the second set showed things to be much safer). Oh, and these same machines have the TSA employees concerned for their own safety as well.

So, yeah, I ask for the grope rather than subject myself to the nude-o-scope. At least I know that the agent feeling me up isn’t giving me cancer.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. Do you have the cost per incident to support the quote “300 dangerous or illegal items.” I have to assume that 100’s of millions have been spent on scanners, all to identify 300 items? And do we know how many “items” have been found by traditional X-ray?

  2. I prefer the millimeter wave scanners to the backscatter scanners, but not because of safety. I think the millimeter wave scanners are much more fun, having the things spin around you. It is a lot more enjoyable than a typical metal detector. And let’s be honest here, it’s not like if the EU does something that makes it the proper course of action. Look at what they are trying to do with air travel, taxing companies for flying 5,000 miles away. Euro zone debt crisis. The list goes on.

    1. I’m certainly not suggesting that everything Europe does is perfect, Kris, but when you look at one group which is willing to respect a reasonable body of scientific research and then contrast that with the TSA I do not think it is particularly hard to make a case that the TSA is a bunch of idiots on this move.

      The MMW may be more “fun” but I’m still not going in there. I know the grope doesn’t have any medical side effects so as long as that’s my option I’m sticking with it.

      To the cost per incident, Iolaire, I don’t have any hard numbers but the Agency spends billions of dollars every year and much of it is thrown at the wrong “problems” or wasted in other ways. We’re wasting billions and getting cancer in return.

  3. great post. As a cancer survivor, I can say that everyone thinks it won’t happen to them. Until it does.

  4. Well, the groper may give you _something_ if you don’t instruct him (yes, not ask, instruct) to change his gloves.

    I always do. And when he asks me if I have any sensitive parts, I always answer, “My resistance.”

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