While the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has claimed to have no concerns over possible health risks associated with the body scanners that are used in airports across the United States, studies have found that the possibility of health risks is real. Health risks are more likely in people who are regularly exposed to the body scanners or some other form of X-rays.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that exposure to the radiation that is present in X-rays causes damage to a person’s cells. While the body attempts to repair any damage done to cells by exposure to radiation, sometimes the damage is too severe. This is especially true when a person has been exposed to radiation on a regular basis. The body may be trying to repair damage from one X-ray when another is taken, essentially reversing any progress that had been made.
The health risks associated with exposure to X-rays are split into two categories: stochastic effects and non-stochastic effects.
Stochastic effects refer to health risks that are observed when a person is regularly exposed to a low amount of radiation over the long term. The most serious health risk observed with this type of exposure is cancer. It is also possible for this type of exposure to result in mutations in the cells that will be passed on to offspring.
Non-stochastic effects refer to health risks that are observed when a person is exposed to a high amount of radiation over a short period of time. The health risks include radiation burns and radiation sickness. Depending on the dose of radiation, exposure may be fatal.
One of the biggest concerns with X-rays is the possibility of developing some form of cancer. The National Cancer Institute explains that the BRCA2 gene is one that can be mutated and passed down to offspring. A mutation in this gene makes a person more susceptible to developing breast cancer.
The exact cause of mutations in the BRCA2 gene is unknown. There are hundreds of mutations that can occur in this gene, but not all mutations increase the risk of cancer.
Research released following a study conducted by the Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics at the National Cancer Institute revealed that the lifetime risk of cancer for a person with certain mutations of the BRCA2 gene is approximately 56 percent. The average lifetime risk for the entire female population of the United States is 12 percent.
A concern regarding mutations in the BRCA2 gene and X-rays is that exposure to radiation can lead to mutations that may significantly increase a person’s chance of developing breast cancer. These mutations are passed on to future generations and could cause an increase in the average instance of a variety of cancers in the future.
In late 2011, the Los Angeles Times reported that the European Union had banned the use of full body scanners in airports because of possible ties between use of the scanners and an increase in cancer risk. Although the TSA maintains that the amount of radiation emitted by the scanners is so low that it is only equivalent to spending between two and three minutes flying, independent studies have actually identified that the amount of radiation that the machines expose people to could result in a small number of people developing cancer.
The health threat is only associated with the backscatter style of TSA body scanners. These types of scanners use an X-ray beam to scan passengers during a security check. The other type of scanner, known as the millimeter scanner, uses millimeter waves instead of X-rays. There have been no health risks identified with the use of the millimeter body scanner.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) references a warning letter that was sent to President Barack Obama in 2010 regarding the body scanners. Scientists working for the University of California at San Francisco warned that their research had revealed an increase in cancer risk related to the amount of radiation used in the TSA body scanners. This risk especially affects children, the elderly and pregnant women. The biggest concern with the body scanners is that many TSA agents are not trained on how to properly use the scanner. While the scanner may be almost completely safe when used correctly, improper training and usage could lead to greater exposure to harmful radiation.
EPIC announced in 2011 that the TSA had identified that the body scanners could be linked to cancer cases, and that the TSA had failed to implement safety features regarding use of the scanners. There is a device that can detect whether unsafe levels of radiation are being emitted by the TSA body scanners. While the TSA was aware of these detectors and could have taken the time to purchase and distribute these scanners to employees, it did not take this important step.
As discussed in the text above, people should be concerned about the amount of radiation that they are exposed to via X-rays and TSA body scanners because of the possibility of health risks. The most serious health risk associated with radiation exposure is cancer. Even if a person exposed to radiation does not develop cancer, damage to cells can lead to mutations in the genes. Any children that this person has after the cell damage and mutations occur will inherit the mutated gene. While some mutated genes do not cause health problems, gene mutations such as those associated with the BRCA2 gene can significantly increase a person’s cancer risk.
People should protect themselves through education regarding radiation and avoidance of radiation exposure whenever possible.