Radiation Risk from Airport Scanners Extremely Low

A study I recently co-authored on backscatter x-ray scanners – the radiation-emitting scanners being used in airports across the country – found that the machines pose an extremely low risk to travelers.

Radiation exposure is something we experience every day as part of daily living. Most of this comes from radon that comes out of the ground and from exposure to the sun and cosmic rays. There is no way to avoid this exposure to radiation – it is everywhere around us. Taking an airplane trip increases that exposure a small amount, as at the altitudes of commercial air flights we are closer to the sun.

When put into the context of these exposures we all receive every day, the additional exposure from the backscatter x-ray scanners is trivial. It is the same as a few minutes of radiation we get as part of daily living, and it is the same as one additional minute of airplane time. Thus if someone takes a cross country flight from California to New York, the radiation dose from these scans is less than 1 percent of the radiation than is received on the flight.

While high-dose radiation is absolutely harmful – as we are unfortunately seeing with some of the workers at the compromised Japanese power plant – and moderate doses can add up (and thus should be minimized when possible), the doses used in these scanners are not in the range where anyone should be concerned

That being said, given the number of people who travel each year, and the relative inexperience the public has with the machines, I believe the TSA should make these scanners more widely available for scientists to ensure they are set up and used correctly.