Invasion of the Body Scanners: Airport Security May Not Work, But It Does Cause Cancer

On the eve of some of the busiest travel days of the year, airport scanners are causing hysteria–and with good reason. Never mind the puerile TSA screeners giggling at your naked body. It turns out that the things may pose serious health concerns. In a letter to John Pistole, administrator of TSA, New Jersey Congressman Rush Holt, a scientist and the Chairman of the House Select Intelligence Oversight Panel, raised the possibility that the machines might be carcinogenic.

In March, the Congressional Biomedical Caucus (of which I am a co-chair) hosted a presentation on this technology by TSA, as well as a briefing by Dr. David Brenner of Columbia University on the potential health effects of “back scatter” x-ray devices. As Dr. Brenner noted in his presentation and in subsequent media interviews, the devices currently in use and proposed for wider deployment this year currently deliver to the scalp “20 times the average dose that is typically quoted by TSA and throughout the industry.”

Dr. Brenner has pointed out that the majority of the radiation from X-ray backscatter machines strikes the top of the head, which is where 85 percent of the 800,000 cases of basal cell carcinoma diagnosed in the United States each year develop. According to Dr. Brenner, excessive x-ray exposure can act as a cancer rate multiplier, which is why our government should investigate thoroughly the potential health risks associated with this technology.V

Various experts have questioned whether older people and children ought to be subjected to scanners, and whether people susceptible to or having melanoma and cataracts should undergo the scan. 

Holt also questioned the efficacy of the body scanners, which would come as no surprise to critics who’ve been lambasting them for years. Last January, when the government’s appetite for body scanners got a big boost from the underwear bomber, there was skepticism about their ability to detect the types of explosives favored by would-be airline bombers. As I wrote at the time:

Known by their opponents as “digital strip search” machines, the full-body scanners use one of two technologies—millimeter wave sensors or backscatter x-rays—to see through clothing, producing ghostly images of naked passengers. Yet critics say that these, too, are highly fallible, and are incapable of revealing explosives hidden in body cavities—an age-old method for smuggling contraband. If that’s the case, a terrorist could hide the entire bomb works within his or her body, and breeze through the virtual strip search undetected. Yesterday, the London Independent reported on “authoritative claims that officials at the [UK] Department for Transport and the Home Office have already tested the scanners and were not persuaded that they would work comprehensively against terrorist threats to aviation.” A British defense-research firm reportedly found the machines unreliable in detecting “low-density” materials like plastics, chemicals, and liquids—precisely what the underwear bomber had stuffed in his briefs.

Just to be sure I am not going off the deep end on this subject, I emailed Steve Elson, the intrepid former Navy Seal who worked on the federal government’s Red Team, which was deployed  in the years before 9/11 to test airport security by infiltrating through check points. This they did with ease; but noone ever paid any attention to their reports. Since 9/11 Elson has worked on and off with television crews, continuing to penetrate airport security carrying with him all manner of guns and IEDs, and for the most part avoiding detection. In a CBC program last year at this time, the Canadians reviewed the air security situation and found it to be wanting. The reporters also got hold of a redacted report from the Canadian transport people which raised questions about the effectiveness of full body scanners, especially when they are used in combination with metal detectors: A person passing through one machine after another would have to place their arms in different positions and the Canadians found the body scanners would fail to detect objects like rings or bracelets on extended arms because the mechanism could not reach high enough to take them in.

This morning’s Washington Post carried a list of people exempt from body scanning, including cops and military in uniform. I asked Elson about this, and he replied:

When I was traveling through Chicago last January on my way to Toronto to do an interview, I had some time between planes. Got a sandwich. No place to sit down so I literally walked into the back of a checkpoint that was enclosed by glass so everyone could see what was going on, sat down on a bench and ate my sandwich, and  watched. Noone touched the pilots. Ergo, all I needed was a pilot’s uniform, bought or stolen, and a photoshop badge. Put explosives on my body, no metal, walk through, pick up my stuff and off to the plane. Likewise, I could do something similar on the ramp. Best time is in cold weather and snow storms. Do it as night approaches. People don’t care about security, just getting the job done and getting out of the weather. Steal a bag tag, make an unauthorized entry (no problem), walk up to a plane and throw it in with 50 lbs explosive.

Elson has always contended that the body scanner couldn’t detect explosives in body cavities. In his email he added this: “The machine can see through a thin layer of clothing and probably detect explosives strapped to the body.” But he pointed out that Leslie Stahl on “60 Minutes” worried about exposing private parts, but  noted she could see a woman’s bra. “If she could see the bra, that means she could not see through the bra. A bra bomb or explosives molded to the breast wouldn’t be seen,” he continues. “And a woman, because of her anatomical construction, could easily… bring a several pound IED fully assembled with timer, detonator, power sources right through the checkpoint. If scanned or patted down it would make no difference. Once on the plane she has the option to leave it in  the plane…and get off.” Ellison warns that a well planned Al Qaeda operation, “if they did it right, could knock down 50 planes in 30 minutes. Think about what that would do to US air operations.”

In my opinion, the best answer to airport security is the mass deployment of dogs. Give me a friendly German Shepherd, and I’ll gladly submit to being sniffed, rather than patted, wanded, or scanned. But unlike the scanner companies, dogs have no powerful lobbyists, like former Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff, to advocate on their behalf.

Make room for Fido

12 responses to “Invasion of the Body Scanners: Airport Security May Not Work, But It Does Cause Cancer

  1. I’m glad that somebody is discussing the cancer risks. The corporate media either censor this issue, or cite laughable claims about the alleged safety of the XRays people are being bombarded with.

  2. It is not possible to prove that exposures to machine generated millimeter waves or x-rays have no physiological effect on tissues.

    I was in the San Francisco airport for a scheduled flight on the 27th of October, the airport security staff blatantly lied to me as to the technology ( …I had not flown in 5 years), as “It just takes a full body photograph of you”, it was later revealed to me after my return flight that the technology in use at the S.F. airport was of the millimeter wave type, but a photo, if one remembers photovoltaics, photosynthesis, (Greek, φως = light), is based on light, not on a sensor of millimeter waves, mmW which are 30 to 300 gigahertz in range, and so below infrared, and not light. Apparently in S.F. they do not use the backscatter x-ray type of machines.

    But if, and I am informed that the major cost of increased airfares is not due to an increase in fuel costs, but do to increased airport “security” costs, among which are harassment of passengers, and scanners, if the TSA has not addressed whether the information I presented to Congress of the Philippine (April 2001 appointed) National Security Advisor’s involvement in the planning of the September 11 incidents is accurate, Roilo Golez a paratroop school graduate at Fort Benning (Georgia), and of the U.S. Naval Academy, and Academy Alumni member, if the TSA has not addressed this matter, then they are harassing passengers and incurring inordinate and excessive costs upon such air travelers.

    On this point I concur with Munn v. Illinois, 94 U.S. 113 (1877), where the rates of a company can be regulated by the state, to the extent that the company provides a service that is in the interests of the public.

    :_ At $170,000 per mmW machine, USA Today, F. Thomas (18 February 2009), “Body scanners…”.

  3. You do not need dogs. This new technology will work just fine. Cut and paste,


  4. I would be interested to see citations for the numbers provided in the article. I’m not contesting your article, nor the responses of the people that commented, however I’m disinclined to take this information as fact if I don’t know where the information is coming from. A quotation just won’t cut it.

    I do however opt out every time I move through security. When I go to the dentist, they give me a lead vest to protect the rest of my body. I feel uncomfortable using those machines even when it is helping to keep me healthy. Like hell if I’m going to go through that just so some TSA agent can peep my junk.

  5. * On Munn v. Illinois it is noticed that the distinction is drawn that the TSA is an [Administrative] agency (, and not a firm, however there is still the subject of “excess charges” based on affiliation or affiliations with external firms.

    There is also the possibility under the “False Claims Act”, to recover such excess charges, likely as a ‘class action’ court filing, based on such govt. / private, or public, firms’, associations; that is, if the government [Administration] was cognizant of such falseness (…the purposes) of the “excess charges”, and continued with the contracts with the firms anyways, there is government collusion with private and/or publicly traded firms.

    Further one has the violation of law-making rules of congress, where private beneficiaries – individuals, specified groups, corporations – can only benefit from legislation under Private law bills, NOT Public Law bills, the as-named Homeland Security Act (Public Law 107 – 296 ) and its predecessor National Security Act of 1947 (Public Law No. 235), allocate for private beneficiaries, i.e. corporate interests,* and of consequence violate congressional law-making rules.

    * As, in practice, covert operations in foreign countries, to the interests of United States’ corporations, e.g., USA Treasury disbursements for the supply of United States produced armaments, and or matériel, supplied by the CIA to “Afghan rebels” in the 1970s and 80s… on which refer the “The Truth About Afghanistan” as a downloadable electronic copy of the book, linked to via the icon in the right sidebar of the Internet-log (blog) as:

    – – –

    The author (of the above) being a distant relative of the Lindbergh family, from Gardlösa, Sweden, noted is the opposition of Congressman Lindbergh (1907 to 1917) to militarism, … the United States paid off the war debt from the Spanish American War of 1898, only in 2003, as a tax on long distance telephone calls.

    The Federal Reserve, which such establishment Lindbergh also opposed, Federal Reserve Act, Public No. 43, of 1913, as it allocated for stocks’ investments in the member banks to the Federal Reserve branches, also violates congressional law-making rules.

    … Of a historical note, the Federal Reserve soon after its establishment became the US government’s primary retailer of US war bonds (circa 1917-18), Nelson Aldrich, Frank Vanderlip, Henry Davison, Paul Warburg.

    Naval Aviation (reference above, previous comment, Roilo Golez) got is start through the sponsorship of the above named Henry Pomeroy Davison, the First Yale Unit Naval Reserve Air Corps, of which his son, Frederick Trubee Davison, had been involved in.

    “The First Yale Unit”, 2 vols., published by Riverside Press, 1925.

  6. I’ve railed against cavalier use of x-rays for years, and against the deployment of these new scanning machines for as long as they have proposed using them. My father in the late 1950’s developed dermatitis from work-related over-use of hand sanitizers (he worked at a large veteran’s hospital kitchen). Workers Compensation sent him to a ‘specialist’ and although they cured the dermatitis with Guernes Rays (superficial X-ray), a couple of years following that, he developed bone cancer in both hands. Although he continued to work until he was 65, in 20 years he had over 50 surgical removals of tumours and the bone cancer eventually spread; he died a painful death. The constant use of radiation is unacceptable, whether it’s in the dentist’s chair or at the airport. There IS NO SAFE EXPOSURE LIMIT to radiation, and its effects are cumulative.

  7. Of interesting note is that Henry Pomeroy Davison came up with the idea of establishing a company to provide trust services to customers of state and national banks throughout the country. Bankers Trust Company was incorporated in April 1903, on the basis of this plan. A subsidiary of Bankers Trust Company, TISCO (Thai Investment and Securities Corporation) provided the assassin to murder (Feb. 1986) the UN nominated peace negotiator for the Iran-Iraq war, the Swedish prime minister, Olof Palme. The likelihood is that the US and British were involved in the Lockerbie crash so as to eliminate the deputy peace negotiator Bernt Carlson, and US equipment was directly responsible for the downing of the Tupolev Tu-134A-3 aircraft which resulted in the death of Moçambique president Samora Machel in December of 1986. Nelson Mandela has married Graça, the widow, of Samora Machel.

    The Bankers Trust Company has merged with Deutsche Bank and maintained offices in proximity to the Twin Towers.

  8. correction:
    October 19, 1986 was the date of the plane crash of the Moçambique president.

  9. The reason that all of these “terrorist attacks” are focused around planes is because airports provide a unique nexus for control and subjugation of the middle class.

  10. Oh, by the way, best defense against terrorism is not dogs it’s to stop murdering Muslims all around the world.

  11. Pingback: Napolitano Propagandizes Illusions of Body Scanner Safety at Ironic Surrealism v3.0

  12. Pingback: HOMELAND INSECURITIES OF 2010| Come Reason

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