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How X-Ray Scanners Became Mandatory In US Airports 264

Posted by Soulskill
from the slowly-but-surly dept.
OverTheGeicoE writes "ProPublica has a story on how x-ray scanners became the controversial yet mandatory security fixtures we in the US must now endure. The story title, 'U.S. Government Glossed Over Cancer Concerns As It Rolled Out Airport X-Ray Scanners,' summarizes a substantial part of the article, but not all of it. The story also describes how government attitudes about the scanners went from overwhelmingly negative in the early 1990s to the naive optimism we see today. How did this change occur? The government weakened its regulatory structure for radiation safety in electronic devices, and left defining safety standards to an ANSI committee dominated by scanner producers and users (prison and customs officials). Even after 9/11 there was still great mistrust of x-ray scanners, but nine years of lobbying from scanner manufacturers, panic over failed terrorist attacks, and pressure from legislators advancing businesses in their own districts eventually forced the devices into the airports. The article estimates that 6 to 100 cancers per year will be caused by the x-ray scanners."
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How X-Ray Scanners Became Mandatory In US Airports

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 02, 2011 @08:14AM (#37918364)

    The reason why there are scanners: not because there is an actual need, or statistics that say so, or science or anything objective.

    It was a result of panic and greed.

    Just like the rest of that War on Terror.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 02, 2011 @08:15AM (#37918368)

    So, 100 people a year could get a death sentence from a system that has yet to save a single life? That makes as much sense as anything else this government does.

    • by firex726 (1188453)

      Do the scanners really pose a health threat?
      Aren't they non-ionizing radiation so it wont affect your cells?

      I know some people out there see Radiation = BAD, and don't take it beyond that.

      • by heypete (60671) <pete@heypete.com> on Wednesday November 02, 2011 @08:32AM (#37918516) Homepage

        X-rays are ionizing radiation.

      • by peragrin (659227) on Wednesday November 02, 2011 @09:06AM (#37918830)

        X-rays arent good for you but mostly is the weak shieleding and poor maintience that is the long term problem. Those 100 people will be the security guards standing by the machines for 40 hours a week for 5 years.

        Every 5 minutes or so they are getting a full xray dose.

      • by blueg3 (192743)

        Millimeter-wave scanners are non-ionizing radiation (in not-so-small quantities). Backscatter X-ray scanners are ionizing radiation, though in very small quantities.

      • by mbone (558574) on Wednesday November 02, 2011 @09:30AM (#37919162)

        There has been a long debate on this, most of which you can easily find by search engine. These devices do a raster scan with a fairly intense spot beam (most of this radiation goes right through you; the spot beam has to be strong as the signal is actually the fraction scattered off of your skin). The spot beam would be a problem if it was to sit on one location for any length of time, so you are totally reliant on the software to not get a serious dose. That alone is a real worry, as most medical Xray radiation problems are due to software errors. That also means that any repeated glints out of the device (say, by people's metal buttons) are likely to cause problems for nearby agents (as they tend to stand in the same place, and so could get repeated exposures). It also means that just wearing a dosimeter is pretty worthless. The agent's chest might get no glint exposure and their feet or crotch might get a serious one.

        The above is pretty much the conventional wisdom. As a physicist, I also worry about the way that they calculated dosage (whole body versus surface exposure) may seriously underestimate the risk, but that worry is not very conventional. If I am right, look for skin cancers to start appearing in frequent flyers in areas normally covered by clothing. Of course, that will take a few years; Michael Chertoff is likely to have retired with his loot by then.

        • by ChumpusRex2003 (726306) on Wednesday November 02, 2011 @11:34AM (#37920968)

          Nice post. Just one correction, at the beam energies used in these devices (50 kVp - 120 kVp), most X-ray photons certainly do not go straight through you. At about 120 kVp, about 75% will get absorbed through the torso - and in the case of 50 kVp, essentially 100% will be absorbed (with only a fraction of a percent getting scattered, as 50 kVp is below the optimal range for Compton scattering in body tissues).

          In fact, it was widely stated in the marketing information and propaganda for these scanners that the X-ray beam does not penetrate skin. This statement is patently false at all energies in commercial use. If they can get away with deliberate lies as basic as that, how can you reasonably believe any more difficult claims?

      • by mr1911 (1942298) on Wednesday November 02, 2011 @10:10AM (#37919762)

        Do the scanners really pose a health threat?

        It is quite certain they are not good for you.

        Scanning tools at the hospital have to pass high hurdles to be certified for use. The scanners at the airport were installed such that they circumvented such certification. Do you think it would have been necessary to circumvent the certification if they would have passed?

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Matt.Battey (1741550)

          They are also required to be enclosed in lead lined rooms, with leaded glass, and use lead lined doors and door frames. This is to protect the radiologic technologist, the radiologist, and patients in surrounding corridors and rooms. When anyone must be present in a room when the HE photon gun is activated, they are required to wear full body leaded gowns, and neck collars to protect the thyroid. Patients are also provided shields to cover the torso or thyroid when that region is not being scanned. This

  • by Compaqt (1758360) on Wednesday November 02, 2011 @08:17AM (#37918384) Homepage

    ...pressure from legislators advancing businesses in their own districts eventually forced the devices into the airports.

    The idea is that you create "make-work" for people to do, and then there'll be more jobs.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parable_of_the_broken_window [wikipedia.org]

    The problem is the money you're spending is coming out of taxes, which is reducing the amount that would have been invested in other productivity-enhancing or job-producing activities in the economy.

    • In this case, I agree.

      In other cases though, it has a benefit... so long as the project has long-term benefits worth the cost. Like the Hoover Dam was pretty much busy work to get the economy going again (jobs, money flow, pride, etc) and when it was complete it became a large source of electricity.

      Or perhaps a bridge, of course assuming it doesn't go to "nowhere," where the long-term fiscal benefits are harder to calculate but still there. Easier travel to a city = less gas used + less traffic + fewer ac

      • by Compaqt (1758360)

        >In other cases though, it has a benefit... so long as the project has long-term benefits worth the cost.

        Yeah. That'd be investment.

        The problem is you get people who are radical Keynesians (not people from Kenya!) who believe spending on something, anything will always be a net benefit.

        That's why you get stuff like these scanners. And the Osprey.

        • The problem is you get people who are radical Keynesians (not people from Kenya!)

          No, that would be Kenyans. Keynesians are people from Milton Keynes [wikipedia.org].

        • by Ma'at (68095)

          The problem is you get people who are radical Keynesians (not people from Kenya!) who believe spending on something, anything will always be a net benefit.

          Well, the point that Keynesians make is that during a demand slump, spending on something, anything will be a net benefit, they don't say that it will ALWAYS be a net benefit. In the current economy, where consumers can't spend because they are debt-constrained, and industry won't spend because there are no customers buying, then government should step in and spend to fill the demand gap and cut taxes to give consumers and industry more spare cash to spend. The corollary to this is during good times, you ra

        • by Chris Burke (6130)

          And the Osprey.

          The Osprey is what you get when the one branch of the military that isn't completely bogged down by inter-service political bullshit about who can use what kind of aircraft to avoid stepping on each other's toes asks for an aircraft that actually suits their needs which turned out to be a difficult thing to deliver in practice (but is working now).

          I mean I'm not saying this was a good use of money compared to, say, funding extra science curriculum in high schools across the nation.

          I just find it disappointi

      • by grumling (94709) on Wednesday November 02, 2011 @08:54AM (#37918696) Homepage

        Like the Hoover Dam was pretty much busy work to get the economy going again (jobs, money flow, pride, etc) and when it was complete it became a large source of electricity.

        Bad example. The Hoover Dam was planned and sent through Congress during the Harding and Coolidge administrations. It was a happy accident that it was built during the 1930s, and Six Companies made out like bandits because they got labor at a much better price than estimated, and lots of it. In fact, the reason it is called the Hoover Dam and not Boulder Dam is because Hoover got the states together to sign the Colorado River Pact in the late teens and early 1920s. And the benefit to the US (and the world) is easily calculated in irrigated land in the southern US and the massive increase in food production that resulted.

        A make work project would be about 1/2 the various epidemiological studies that look at cancer rates and power lines. Or locking up drug offenders for life.

      • by anwaya (574190) on Wednesday November 02, 2011 @10:13AM (#37919800)
        The Hoover dam does more than just make electricity: it is part of the system of dams that control the Colorado's propensity to flood uncontrollably, and this control allows a stable agricultural system to flourish, which feeds tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people. You know, rather than the fields being wiped out every ten years, or permanently flooded like the Salton Sea.

        Lake Mead is named for the genius from the Bureau of Land Management who made this happen. He was from the government, and he was there to help.
    • by PopeRatzo (965947) *

      productivity-enhancing

      Why would we want to increase productivity in a world where labor is a buyer's market?

      We'd be better off if everyone did half as much. Assuming you believe in a "free market". Which I don't.

    • by jrumney (197329)

      The problem is the money you're spending is coming out of taxes, which is reducing the amount that would have been invested in other productivity-enhancing or job-producing activities in the economy.

      The politicians know this. All that they care about is that the money is being spent in their electorate, and that they are seen by the citizens as being at least partially responsible for bringing it there.

  • Tourism (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    I guess I just won't ever go on holiday to the US again then. Problem solved!

    On a more serious note, as an existing radiation worker in the health industry, I personally object to being exposed to this which I see as completely unnecessary on health grounds

  • ok. 100 people a year. 10 years. I sincerely doubt the "terrorists" could kill 1000 people in 10 years on US soil.

    Perhaps the terrorists are actually hyper intelligent beings who knew all along that if they could only trick us into radiating ourselves out of fear of them and we would do their job for them while they kick back and enjoy some of that great Mideast sun and sand. 1000 dead and all they had to do was say "Boo!"

    • by Leebert (1694) *

      The summary didn't say 100 DEATHS per year. It said 100 cases of cancer per year. And that was the high side. I'm as anti-scanner as anyone out there, but succumbing to the same style of sensationalist rhetoric as the scanner supporters does our cause no good.

      • by Barnett (550375)
        Nor did it say that scanners will prevent all deaths from terrorism.
      • by bberens (965711)
        Yes it does. Sensationalist rhetoric gets votes. It's really the only way to get things done in an American Idol world.
      • How many terrorist attacks has it stopped .... ?

        Probably none : the only failed attacks since have used things the scanners would not pick up .. i.e. various explosives

        The attacks prior would have been stopped by scanners, but would also have been stopped by much simpler and safer checks...The single most effective anti-terrorist device since 9/11 is the locked door to the cockpit .,,

      • How about if I just latch on to any argument that furthers my agenda?
    • by Denogh (2024280)
      Don't be so hard on them. Of course they could kill well over 1000 people on US soil in a year. All they need to do is bomb the bloody security checkpoints. There are hundreds of people in close quarters in an unsecured area, just waiting in line to be groped and irradiated. Put a bomber in the middle of that crowd and you've got the biggest vulnerability in the whole damned air travel system.
      • Please don't make flying harder than it is by telling the idiots in charge where the vast, gaping security holes are.

        Thanks,
        The American Public

    • This is especially true because the "terrorists" largely do not exist. Oh sure, there may be a pissed off radical or two, but that has always been the case. This newest enemy is useful for profit and power however. Seen from that angle, these machines make pefect sense.
  • I for one... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by taiwanjohn (103839) on Wednesday November 02, 2011 @08:21AM (#37918420)

    do not welcome our new x-ray overlords.

  • The TL;DR version. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by crow_t_robot (528562) on Wednesday November 02, 2011 @08:21AM (#37918422)
    "How X-Ray Scanners Became Mandatory In US Airports" --> Raw, unmitigated fear.
  • by fredrated (639554) on Wednesday November 02, 2011 @08:40AM (#37918590) Journal

    In other words, more people will die from exposure to the scanners than would have died from the supposed terrorist attacks they 'protect' us from. And why? Money of course, that is what runs this country (into the ground).

    • by QBasicer (781745)

      In other words, more people will die from exposure to the scanners than would have died from the supposed terrorist attacks they 'protect' us from. And why? Money of course, that is what runs this country (into the ground).

      Sure, but if we didn't have scanners and it was fairly trivial to get through security, they number would skyrocket. That's like saying 'we have this drug that virtually eliminates cancer, but rarely people will die from it". The overall net effect is that more lives will be saved than lost, just it's unfortunate that they can't all be saved. At least if you die from cancer you get to say goodbye to your family.

      • 'we have this drug that virtually eliminates cancer, but rarely people will die from it"

        Ah, the "Patented Quicksilver Cure". Prevents cancer 99.7% of the time with only minor side-effects!

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        No.

        The US is not filled with terrorists at every corner, just waiting for us to relax airport security so they have a chance to blow up as many Americans as possible. You've fallen into the fear.

        Ignoring the fact that there are still ways to get a bomb past security despite these scanners, here's a list of places where you could kill more people, with less security, by blowing up a bomb there instead of on a plane:

        Pro Sports Event
        Mall
        Large classroom auditorium
        Popular (i.e. rivalry) High School Sport

        • by mr1911 (1942298)
          Yeah, but don't let facts get in the way of installing x-ray machines at airports.

          Just wait. The idiots at DHS will realize what you said one day, and then we'll have scanners at all the venues you listed. For your safety, of course.
      • Just like all the hundreds of terrorist attacks on US soil before 9/11, when security was so lax that you could easily smuggle anything onto flights ...

        US internal flights were an extremely soft target for years ... and yet almost no terrorist attacks occurred ?

      • by kilfarsnar (561956) on Wednesday November 02, 2011 @10:40AM (#37920152)

        Sure, but if we didn't have scanners and it was fairly trivial to get through security, they number would skyrocket.

        That's your fear talking. These scanners have only been in place a few years. It's not like there were frequent attacks before that. So what are they preventing? All of this hysteria is caused by our reaction to a singular event over a decade ago; an event these scanners would not have prevented.

      • by Jah-Wren Ryel (80510) on Wednesday November 02, 2011 @11:52AM (#37921218)

        Sure, but if we didn't have scanners and it was fairly trivial to get through security, the number would skyrocket.

        That's provably false.

        No terrorist sees the security at airports and says, "Oh well, I'll just give up, go home and play xbox."
        Instead he looks for another target that is less well defended and hits that instead.

        So why haven't the number of attacks on other targets - like movie theaters and shopping malls or even just sabotage on unguarded train tracks - skyrocketed? The number of such attacks in the last decade is so small that you can count them on one hand with fingers to spare.

    • "sell all the living for more safer dead"

  • by magamiako1 (1026318) on Wednesday November 02, 2011 @08:46AM (#37918644)
    I opt out of these things every time I fly. My buddies insist "you get more exposure to radiation flying in the aircraft than you do going through the scanner." They proceed to go right through them.

    Amusingly enough I've had an easier time voluntarily subjecting myself to the search than I have ever had when involuntarily being forced into being searched. I travel a lot, single white guy, long hair--most people assume drugs, search accordingly.

    At the end of the day though; someone touching my crotch very briefly (trust me, they don't want to be touching me any more than I want to be touched) isn't going to give me cancer.
    • Re:Opting out (Score:4, Informative)

      by bberens (965711) on Wednesday November 02, 2011 @09:50AM (#37919472)

      At the end of the day though; someone touching my crotch very briefly (trust me, they don't want to be touching me any more than I want to be touched) isn't going to give me cancer.

      No it wont' give you cancer, but it should be considered an unreasonable search under the Constitution.

  • by kurt555gs (309278) <(kurt555gs) (at) (ovi.com)> on Wednesday November 02, 2011 @09:11AM (#37918906) Homepage

    The US government is acting in the interest of both the insurance companies and the politicly connected makers of the X-Ray machines. They never cared about the safety of the people. They never do. The insurance industry does not want to pay out for airplane crashes, and will roast every traveller like popcorn bags in order for those greedy bastards to keep their money.

    Simple.

  • These machines were rolled out because of lobbying. People are going to die because of security theater.

    By the way, most of those people will be TSA agents. Whatever the general public is getting, they are getting as well.

    • by ErikZ (55491) *

      Really? JUST lobbying?

      There was no interest on the politicians side to "Do something" about domestic terrorists?

      Both sides were looking for the other.

  • One of the main proponents of X-Ray scanners, former Bush-Era Homeland Security Secretary Michael "Jackoff" Chertoff, the man who apparently was too deaf or STUPID to hear and see the hundreds of American citizens trapped in a shopping center in New Orleans, is well-connected [deseretnews.com] to the manufacturers of the body scanners.

    So when Bush fell asleep on 9/11 he was not only proving for the nth time in his life that he's a useless fuckoff who shouldn't be trusted to watch grass grow, let alone the security of a natio

  • by zuki (845560) on Wednesday November 02, 2011 @02:35PM (#37923604) Journal
    It's very simple. Just calmly tell them you want to opt out. By now they are used to the idea that a small percentage of us will refuse, and they'll just go through with their manual search without much of a fuss. While you are being searched, it's usually pretty easy to mention in passing to that TSA agent that beyond the unknown potential cumulative damage to frequent flyers like myself who would be made to pass through this devices fifty to sixty times a year, they themselves are all possibly working in an unsafe environment, around devices which have been rushed to market without proper long-term testing and whose effects are in truth at best poorly understood; therefore those who remain close to them for long periods of time may be candidates to develop some future problems from this, themselves being - of course - very much included. Let that sink in...

    I would expect these units to be removed from all but the most sensitive locations in the not-too-distant future, and become reserved for people who already are a likely security risk, rather than for them to remain in use with the general public. All it'll take is one workplace hazard lawsuit by a TSA screening staff's lawyer looking for the glory of a precedent-setting decision with their names attached to it.

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