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Concern raised over airport scanner radiation

Tom Fontaine
| Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2012

The Transportation Security Administration is considering further tests to determine the long-term health impact of radiation from checkpoint scanning machines on employees.

TSA last month requested information from government vendors about meters that agency screeners could wear to measure their exposure to radiation. Some of the full-body scanners at airport checkpoints -- including five at Pittsburgh International Airport -- emit low levels of radiation.

"TSA is dedicated to the health and safety of its employees," spokesman Michael McCarthy said in a prepared statement.

McCarthy said studies by the Army Public Health Command and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health have shown that full-body scanners known as backscatter machines are not dangerous to employees or passengers, despite emitting radiation that at high levels can cause cancer. Another type of full-body scanner, known as a millimeter wave machine, does not produce such radiation.

According to an Army report issued in August, TSA screeners who work near backscatter machines could receive radiation doses totaling less than 10 millirems a year. The limit the Occupational Safety and Health Administration allows is 5,000 millirems per year.

"There is no health hazard associated with the use of these systems provided appropriate operating procedures are followed," the Army report said.

For air travelers, TSA said one trip through a backscatter machine offers the same amount of radiation exposure as two to three minutes of flying in an airplane.

Brandon Macsata, executive director of the Washington-based Association for Airline Passenger Rights, said "there remain lingering questions related to the impact these machines have on health and wellness," especially for those with compromised immune systems.

Macsata said his doctor advised him to avoid going through the machines because he has HIV. Macsata, who flies about twice a week, said he requests pat-down searches instead.

"As a federal agency, when you're dealing with something like radiation, you have to be 100 percent certain that the machines are safe," Macsata said.

If TSA buys dosimeters, McCarthy said, information they gather "will be in addition to the robust data we have already collected, confirming the absence of radiation exceeding normal levels."

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