TSA Body Scans – The Real Story

No Love for TSA Body Scan

I recently went through one of those relatively new TSA body scan imaging machines under somewhat “controlled conditions” while at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) for an interview with TSA spokesman Nico Melendez (an excellent representative of his agency, by the way).

What did I think? I think I’m not quite as enamored of those machines as I used to be.

Would I go through one of them again? I’ve done it before this, and yes, I would go through it again if my only alternative was a full body pat-down.

Body Scan Wins Over Pat-Down

Right now, if you’re asked to go through the body scan, you do have the right to refuse, but then it’s the pat-down. I’ve had the pat-down. I really didn’t like that much; although professionally done, it gets pretty personal – and yes, a bit embarrassing.

Given my druthers, my choice every time would be the good old airport metal detector. I know, however, I won’t always get to choose – so I’ll go with the body scan.

My problem with the body scan?

I guess you could say it’s what we don’t know about it – or about any possible effects that may not be revealed for years. I’m not alone in this.

First a little background: these machine use Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT), and the procedure is pretty simple – walk in, put your arms up, wait ten seconds and you’re done.

Video: Rick Seaney vs. the Body Scan

I recently put together this report for ABCNews.com – take a look, and tell me what you think (and keep reading for my thoughts on the privacy issue, and even more important – do body scan machines do what we want them to do?).


Nico says, they’re safe. “Let’s put it this way,” he said. “We would not put a piece of technology in an airport if it was dangerous to passengers and if it was dangerous to our workforce. The emissions from that technology are less than [what] anyone would get from just a basic cell phone conversation.”

And you don’t have to go on his say-so alone. The TSA’s website offers sources documenting the safety of both types of body scan systems now in use, millimeter wave and backscatter X-ray (“In 17 minutes of ordinary living, a person receives more radiation from naturally occurring sources than from one scan”).

I asked Nico if such a machine would have detected explosives on last year’s so-called underwear bomber who was arrested on Christmas Day after allegedly attempting to set off a bomb on a Northwest Airlines plane. He told me, “That’s one of those questions that is impossible to answer. I can tell you the technology would make it a lot easier.”

Are these machines safe? I’m no scientist, but other products once thought to be completely benign – like asbestos, for instance – turned out to be dangerous. On the other hand, there have been serious concerns raised about the safety of cell phones, but look around – new cell towers are going up every day.

If I have to, I will go through the body scanner – with some minor misgivings. What about you? Please share your comments or experiences below.


Published: November 4, 2010