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Aviation securityDocuments reveal TSA ignored dangers of body scanners

Published 29 June 2011

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) says that is has official documents that reveal the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) deliberately ignored warnings that airport body scanners pose a health risk; the internal documents and email exchanges show that TSA officials brushed aside concerns that employees raised after noticing that a large number of workers had cancer, strokes, and heart disease after working near the body scanners

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) says that is has official documents that reveal the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) deliberately ignored warnings that airport body scanners pose a health risk.

In its lawsuit against DHS, EPIC obtained documents and emails through the Freedom of Information Act which detail TSA’s internal discussions regarding the radiation risks of full body scanners.

According to EPIC, the documents show that TSA staffers have become increasingly concerned that a large number of workers have develop cancer, strokes, and heart disease after working near the body scanners.

 

In response to these concerns, TSA told its employees, “Because TSA systems comply with federal regulations, the increased risk of developing radiation-induced cancer in later life is extremely small, no greater than other risks people routinely accept in their daily lives.”

EPIC said, “One document set reveals that even after TSA employees identified cancer clusters possibly linked to radiation exposure, the agency failed to issue employees dosimeters - safety devices that could assess the level of radiation exposure.”

Another set of documents discloses a series of internal email exchanges between DHS and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) that indicate NIST was “a little concerned” about DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano’s comments in a USA Today article on 14 November 2010 in which she claimed that NIST had “affirmed the safety” of the airport.

In its email, NIST said that it had not tested the body scanners for safety and that it does not even test products.

In her quote in USA Today, Napolitano said, “[Full body scanners] have been independently evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, who have all affirmed their safety.”

In addition to never having tested the devices, in a separate document, NIST warned that airport screeners should avoid standing near the body scanners to minimize their exposure to harmful radiation.

Since July 2009, EPIC has been fighting to remove full body scanners from the airport and has filed a lawsuit to suspend the program.

TSA’s full body scanners have generated sharp criticism over concern that it exposes passengers to harmful levels of radiation and that the devices were not properly tested.

The agency insists that the devices emit a negligible amount of radiation and that they have been tested by Johns Hopkins University which has declared them safe.

Scientists dispute the findings and argue that the tests were flawed and that DHS has no credible evidence on which to base its assertions.

In a letter to John Holdren, the White House Science advisor, sent in May, five professorsargued, that the tests used to validate TSA’s claims contain critical flaws, lack transparency, and have not been independently verified.

“There’s no real data on these machines, and in fact, the best guess of the dose is much, much higher than certainly what the public thinks,” said John Sedat, a professor emeritus in biochemistry and biophysics at UCSF and the primary author of the letter.

The scientists also noted that the test results that the TSA cites come from a Johns Hopkins University lab which did not have access to the actual x-ray machine used at airports. Instead researchers were only able to observe as Rapiscan, the machine’s manufacturer, ran their own tests on a mock up model built using spare parts and configured to resemble the TSA machines.