Latest on X-Ray Backscatter Safety

In April, University of California, San Francisco scientists wrote Dr. John P. Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, expressing their concerns regarding X-ray backscatter scanners. Last month they received a detailed technical reply, posted on the FDA website November 8.

One of the more egregious technical problems in official safety claims – equating full-body radiation exposure to  the skin-deep backscatter irradiation dose – was apparently a case of excessive dumbing down of the science to allay fears:

“The comparison between the effective dose from cosmic ray exposure or a medical diagnostic chest x-ray and the effective dose from a security screening is intended to be a clear means of risk communication.”

The FDA statement largely addresses the concerns I had about the safety of the x-ray scanners. The UCSF scientists, however, claim the official response has “misconceptions” and are working on a rebuttal. I’ll continue keeping an eye out for cogent commentary on the subject.

David Corn reports:

David Brenner, the head of Columbia University’s Center for Radiological Research, who helped write the guidelines for security scanners, says he wouldn’t have approved those rules had he known the scanners would be used on almost every air traveler (though he doesn’t agree with the UCSF scientists’ claim that that these machines could cause cancer, prompt sperm cell mutations, and harm fetuses). Earlier this year, Brenner said: “There really is no other technology around where we’re planning to X-ray such an enormous number of individuals. It’s really unprecedented in the radiation world.”

Corn continues: “I’d rather accept a demeaning squeeze than a dose of radiation — before being allowed to proceed to friendly skies. In either case, I’ll be thinking: The terrorists won.”

Corn’s first conclusion is disputable. In fact, knowing what I know now, I’d chose the radiation over the groping. But his second conclusion is beyond dispute.

More: Are Security Scanners Safe? – Technology Review.

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