"Homeland" Radiation Threatens More Than Just Our Health

Howard Rich

3/31/2011 12:00:00 AM - Howard Rich

As the world keeps a watchful eye over the badly-damaged Fukushima Daiichi reactors in Japan, a radioactive threat much closer to home is being deliberately downplayed by our government.

As part of the Department of Homeland Security’s latest infringement on our individual liberties, hundreds of invasive full-body scanners are being shipped to airports around the country this year. Not only do these scanners strip American citizens of our privacy and dignity – literally – they may also be hazardous to our health (particularly the health of children, pregnant women and the elderly).

The controversial machines also fail to protect passengers from a wide range of new and old threats – including the box-cutter knives used by the 9/11 terrorists – thus weakening the only real argument in favor of their widespread use.

Questions about these scans – and the more invasive genital pat-downs required if passengers refuse them– have been raised ever since they were first approved by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in February 2009.

At issue are potentially harmful levels of radiation that passengers are being exposed to– and whether the government has accurately measured and adequately assessed the risks associated with this exposure. Scanners use backscatter X-rays (or low-level X-rays that are “scattered” or reflected from the skin) to create virtual images of travelers’ naked bodies. In addition to providing “a daylong peep show of passengers,” the scanners also deposit radiation directly into their skin and its adjacent tissue. This produces a more concentrated dose than traditional X-rays (which deposit radiation throughout the entire body).

Last April a group of scientists from the University of California at San Francisco voiced “serious concerns about the potential health risks” of the new scanners and pleaded with Obama administration officials to conduct a more thorough review their safety.

Citing “very misleading” government statements and a lack of “independent safety data,” these scientists called on Obama to “reevaluate the potential health issues” of the scanners before there were “irrevocable long-term consequences to the health of our country.”

Last November Dr. Peter Rez, a professor at Arizona State University, discovered that radiation levels from these scanners were ten times higher than the government initially reported. In releasing his findings, Dr. Rez noted that while the likelihood of getting cancer from a screening remained miniscule for most Americans – so was the likelihood of being on a plane with a terrorist aboard.

Accordingly, “there is not a case to be made for deploying (the scanners) to prevent such a low probability event,” Dr. Rez said.

Earlier this month, Homeland Security officials finally acknowledged that their machines were producing much higher radiation levels than the government originally reported. In assessing the results of “contractor administered testing procedures,” a TSA spokesperson admitted miscalculations but claimed that these errors did not “raise alarms in terms of safety.”

“It would appear that emissions are ten times higher,” the spokeswoman said, blaming prior inaccuracies on a “calculation error.”

New safety tests are scheduled for May, but in the meantime the government has no plans to replace any of the scanners.

Even if we assume that these machines are safe, though – do they actually work? That point is also up for debate. According to a recent report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), it’s unclear whether the scanners would have detected the explosives concealed in the underwear of would-be “Christmas Day bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

The GAO report also concluded that pentaerythritol tetranitrate explosives “would be invisible to this technology,” as would “a wire or a box-cutter blade taped to the side of the body, or even a small gun in the same location.”

Not exactly a vote of confidence, is it?

“Timid men prefer the calm of despotism to the tempestuous sea of liberty,” Thomas Jefferson once wrote – a statement we can now apply to our nation’s skies, as well.

Government has no business trampling over our liberties in the name of enhancing our security – yet as we have seen with warrantless searches and domestic wiretapping, it clearly has no problem resorting to such means.

Let’s hope that in addressing legitimate concerns over the safety and effectiveness of these scanners, government will also be compelled to re-evaluate the freedoms it is eroding in its effort to “secure the homeland.”