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Cancer Concerns Raised by Airport X-Ray Plan

Jan 11, 2010 | Parker Waichman LLP

The specter of more cancer deaths has been raised by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration's (TSA) plan to use a type of X-ray scanner - known as a backscatter scanner - to increase airport security following the Christmas day bombing attempt.

According to The New York Times, the TSA says the dose from scanner is about the same amount as an average American receives from natural background sources in four minutes on the ground. A spokesperson for the agency told The Times that even for pregnant women, children and people whose genetic makeup made them more susceptible to X-ray damage, each person would have to undergo 1,000 screenings per year to exceed radiation standards.

But according to The New York Times, some experts believe the use of the scanners will “incrementally increase the risk of fatal cancers among the thousands or millions of travelers who will be exposed.”

In a 2002 report on the safety of backscatter scanners, the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements said it “cannot exclude the possibility of a fatal cancer attributable to radiation in a very large population of people exposed to very low doses of radiation.” An author of the report, David J. Brenner, a professor of radiation biophysics at Columbia and director of the university’s Center for Radiological Research, told The New York Times that risks might increase as airports begin using backscatter scanners as a first-line screening system.

Arjun Makhijani, a nuclear physicist, told the Times that if a billion passengers were screened with the dose assumed by the radiation protection council, that would mean 10 more cancer deaths a year. That number would represent only a tiny increase in the cancer death rate.

But others do not agree that the cancer rate would increase. Robert Barish, a radiation consultant in New York and the author of a 1996 book, “The Invisible Passenger,” told the Times that the doses delivered by the scanners were tiny by any standard, and passengers would get the same dose in a few minutes in a high-altitude jet.

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