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Airport Security Scanners: Are They Safe?

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(credit: AP)

(credit: AP)

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By Dr. Max Rosen, Executive Vice Chairman of Radiology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

If you’ve flown recently, you may have seen them: new scanning booths that produce full-body images of airline passengers in order to detect hidden weapons, liquids, narcotics and other contraband. And you may have wondered, are they safe?

There are two types of these airport scanners: millimeter wave scanners (which use radio waves), and backscatter scanners, which use very low levels of radiation to create an image of the surface of a person’s body.

Backscatter scanners emit approximately 0.1 uSV (micro Sieverts) per scan. A Sievert is a measure of the potential biological effect of radiation. To put this measurement in some perspective, background radiation (from cosmic radiation, the kind you are exposed to in day-to-day life) is approximately 3,600 uSv per year, or approximately 10 uSV per day.

So, for example, if  you were to fly one round-trip flight per week for 50 weeks a year, the total exposure from backscatter airport scanners would be the equivalent of the background exposure from one day. Looking at the exposure from a different perspective, one chest X-ray is equivalent to 1,000 airport scans.

Although the exposure and risk from these airport scanners is minimal, if you are concerned about the exposure, you should ask to undergo an alternative method of screening. This might be especially important for peace-of-mind for pregnant women.

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.

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