En español | During the last couple of weeks my inbox has been full of questions about the TSA’s controversial full-body scanning machines and new pat-down techniques. It seems a lot of you have concerns, especially those who are going through a scanner for the first time or have a special medical need.
There are strong feelings about this issue and a lot of misinformation going around, so it's time for some facts that relate to privacy issues, health and radiation and the security process itself. Keep in mind that the process is still evolving, especially as Thanksgiving travel begins. Give yourself plenty of time, be patient, and dress and pack according to TSA guidelines (the “MyTSA” mobile app is a great resource for wait times and for what is permissible onboard a plane).
Q: What is a full-body scanner and how does it work?
A: The first thing you should know about full-body scanners is that there are two types of scanners that use very different technologies. The first type is called a millimeter wave scanner. A millimeter wave scanner uses high-frequency radio waves to capture an image, which is then processed by a computer to create a 3D image.
The second type of scanner, the one that is causing most of the controversy, is the backscatter scanner. Backscatter scanners use small doses of ionizing radiation that, get this, scatter when they hit an object. So instead of an X-ray that penetrates to see what's inside, backscatter captures what's on the surface, such as explosives or plastic weapons
Both scanners are able to detect things that metal detectors could not, such as prosthetics, non-metallic objects, ceramic knives, liquid explosives and drugs.
One major concern is who is looking at these X-ray images. The fact is, there is an agent looking at those images in another room and it's their responsibility to clear you with the agent who is standing in front of the machine. The TSA has claimed that it doesn't store those images, but there has been evidence to the contrary.
Q: Are full-body scanners safe?
A: The doses of radiation you get from taking a couple of flights are actually more than what you receive from the scanners.
The Food and Drug Administration, National Institute for Standards and Technology and Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory have done tests on backscatter scanners and say they are safe for the public. Tests these organizations have performed indicate the radiation dose emitted by the scanners is below the safety limit set by the American National Standards Institute.
According to the TSA, a person receives more radiation naturally in an hour than from one backscatter screening, and passengers are exposed to more radiation in two minutes of flying than from a full-body scan.
However, not everyone agrees with these findings. Researchers at the University of California-San Francisco have argued that the TSA is wrong about the amount of radiation the scanners emit. They say the amount might be higher because the doses were calculated as if the radiation was distributed throughout the entire body, but really the radiation is just concentrated on the skin. Bottom line: the FDA and the TSA say the technology is safe, but other organizations have their doubts. And for frequent fliers there's another concern: radiation levels are measured on a cumulative basis, and that means every time you take a flight you might have to be scanned by one of these machines. Bottom line: The jury is still out, despite government assurances.
Q: I have a pacemaker. Is this technology safe for me?
A: For years the TSA has been telling people with pacemakers and other medical implants to avoid metal detectors. The TSA says that full-body scanners are safe for passengers with medical implants.
However, every pacemaker or defibrillator is different, and they often have very specific calibrations. For that reason, many medical organizations are strongly encouraging passengers with medical implants to talk to the doctor who implanted the device about possible risks. By consulting with your doctor, you can get more information about the brand of the pacemaker and how it might react to millimeter wave or backscatter technology.
Q: Will passengers in wheelchairs be required to go through a full-body scanner?
A: If you are in a wheelchair and unable to stand for five to seven seconds without help, you're ineligible for the scanners and will not have to go through them. The same is true if you have a disability that makes it difficult to raise your hands above shoulder level for the scan. In both cases, your only option would be to receive a pat-down search. The TSA has been instructed to do more thorough — some say invasive — searches than in the past. That means they can use the palms (heels) of their hands and fingertips
Q: I have a hip replacement. How does the full-body scanner affect me?
A: This technology might actually be a good thing for people with metal joint replacements or other medical devices that set off metal detectors on a regular basis.
Instead of being subjected to a pat down every time they pass through a security check, the scanners can verify their medical augmentation and send them quickly through the security line, sans pat down.
Q. What are my options if I'm asked to go through a full-body scanner?
A: Consider this: The TSA announced it would install these machines at more than 2,200 checkpoints in 450 airports around the country, which is what ignited the backlash. In reality, there are only about 400 machines operating in 69 airports — so the odds of you going through one is slim.
If you do encounter one, you have the option to opt out and choose a pat-down. That will certainly delay you (and the line behind you) for a few minutes, and will likely require another TSA agent to be pulled out of rotation to monitor the pat-down procedure. But, that is your right if you're uncomfortable going through the scanner. You also have the right to be patted down in a private room and to have it witnessed by the person of your choice.
Another important point to make: The news has been saturated with cases such as the woman who was asked to remove her prosthetic breast, and a bladder-cancer survivor who was soaked by the contents of his mishandled urostomy bag (TSA chief John Pistole called him to apologize).
The TSA is not necessarily trained to deal with all medical conditions, but that doesn't excuse them from basic human compassion. If you're asked to do something that makes you uncomfortable, stop and ask for a supervisor to be called to the scene.