By John W. Whitehead
Just when you started to think it might be safe to fly again…
Remember those whole-body, X-ray scanners the government installed in airports across the country and kept insisting were so safe? It turns out that they’re not so safe, after all. According to an investigative report by ProPublica/PBS NewsHour, anywhere from six to 100 U.S. airline passengers each year could get cancer from the machines.
Many Americans initially objected to the invasive nature of the scans, which have been likened to “virtual strip searches” because of the degree to which intimate details of the body are revealed. Travelers also complained about being subjected to ogling and inappropriate remarks by airport officials. In response, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) attempted to alter the devices to make the X-ray images less graphic. Unfortunately, the TSA has done little to nothing about the concerns increasingly being raised about the risk of cancer from the scanners.
Yet as far back as 1998, radiation experts were warning against using X-ray scanners to peer beneath people’s clothing in the search for weapons and contraband, insisting that the machines violate a longstanding principle in radiation safety–that humans shouldn’t be X-rayed unless there is a medical benefit. More recently, in April 2010, four members of the University of California faculty relayed to Dr. John P. Holdren, President Obama’s Science and Technology czar, their concerns about the serious health risks posed to travelers by the whole body backscatter X-ray scanners, which concentrate radiation on the skin. Refuting the TSA’s insistence that the scanners are safe, the scientists believe that the scanners could cause mutations and skin cancer.
Other scientists have also voiced their concerns over the devices, such as Dr. David Brenner who heads Columbia University’s Center for Radiological Research. He states that radiation produced by the scanners is twenty times higher than the official estimate. Physics professor Peter Rez at Arizona State University echoes Dr. Brenner’s claims. He points out that there is a real possibility that a body scanner could malfunction, concentrating unsafe amounts of radiation on one area of the body. “The scary thing to me is not what happens in normal operations, but what happens if the machine fails. Mechanical things break down, frequently.”
Incredibly, the government has continued to dismiss the medical and scientific community’s concerns about these X-ray machines, relying instead on safety assurances from profit-driven corporations such as Rapiscan. As a result, notes investigative reporter Michael Grabell, “the United States has begun marching millions of airline passengers through the X-ray body scanners, parting ways with countries in Europe and elsewhere that have concluded that such widespread use of even low-level radiation poses an unacceptable health risk. The government is rolling out the X-ray scanners despite having a safer alternative that the Transportation Security Administration says is also highly effective.” (Grabell is referring to millimeter-wave scanners, which rely on low-energy radio waves and perform the exact same function as X-ray scanners without the potential harm to health.)
The ProPublica/PBS NewsHour report, which is available at propublica.org, traces the history of the scanners, details exactly how the decision to deploy these scanners came about, and documents the gaps in regulation that allowed them to avoid rigorous safety evaluation. This report is a damning indictment of the extent to which the American people have been sold to the highest corporate bidder by government leaders.
As ProPublica reports:
[I]n post-9/11 America, security issues can trump even long-established medical conventions. The final call to deploy the X-ray machines was made not by the FDA, which regulates drugs and medical devices, but by the TSA, an agency whose primary mission is to prevent terrorist attacks…
Because of a regulatory Catch-22, the airport X-ray scanners have escaped the oversight required for X-ray machines used in doctors’ offices and hospitals. The reason is that the scanners do not have a medical purpose, so the FDA cannot subject them to the rigorous evaluation it applies to medical devices. Still, the FDA has limited authority to oversee some non-medical products and can set mandatory safety regulations. But the agency let the scanners fall under voluntary standards set by a nonprofit group heavily influenced by industry.
As for the TSA, it skipped a public comment period required before deploying the scanners. Then, in defending them, it relied on a small body of unpublished research to insist the machines were safe, and ignored contrary opinions from U.S. and European authorities that recommended precautions, especially for pregnant women. Finally, the manufacturer, Rapiscan Systems, unleashed an intense and sophisticated lobbying campaign, ultimately winning large contracts.
As Grabell points out, even the TSA’s argument that the scanners are essential to preventing attacks on airplanes starts to fall apart once you realize that they waited nine years after 9/11 to start deploying them, and only after being lobbied heavily by Rapiscan, which wanted to get their machines in airports throughout the country. Their lobbying paid off to the tune of $300 million in revenue in 2011: while there are other manufacturers of these machines, Rapiscan is the only one supplying them to American airports.
Currently, there are roughly 250 X-ray scanners and 264 millimeter-wave scanners in U.S. airports, largely funded by Obama’s stimulus plan. By the end of 2012, the TSA intends to have 1,275 backscatter and millimeter-wave scanners covering more than half its security lanes, with 1,800 covering nearly all the lanes by 2014. As Grabell reports, “The TSA has designated the scanners for ‘primary’ screening: Officers will direct every passenger, including children, to go through either a metal detector or a body scanner, and the passenger’s only alternative will be to request a physical pat-down.”
Of course, the retributive, harsh treatment and excessive full-body searches being meted out to those who decline a full-body scan may not be a very comforting alternative to the TSA’s virtual strip searches. While having a full-body frisk may not pose any direct health risks, it has becoming increasingly apparent that TSA agents carry out the physical searches in so invasive and humiliating a manner as to discourage travelers from opting out of the scans. For example, after being subjected to an enhanced pat-down by TSA agents, one traveler–a bladder cancer survivor–was left humiliated, crying and covered in his own urine after agents broke the seal on his urostomy bag. Another traveler, a breast cancer patient who had undergone a bilateral mastectomy earlier in the year, was denied her request to a medical card explaining her condition and forced to submit to TSA agents examining her breasts in front of other passengers.
It’s bad enough having to shell out exorbitant amounts of money in order to travel, but there’s no reason any individual should be forced to choose between a certified health risk or a humiliating, invasive search of their person by ill-trained government agents. Even the airport personnel have expressed concerns about the scanners. The Allied Pilots Association has urged its members to opt out of the body scanning measures because of the “ionizing radiation, which could be harmful to their health.” That caution has been echoed by the Federal Aviation Administration’s medical institute, which has raised a concern about the effects of radiation exposure on pregnant pilots and flight attendants.
TSA agents have also expressed concern about their exposure to radiation from the backscatter machines. “We have heard from members that sometimes the technicians tell them that the machines are emitting more radiation than is allowed,” stated Milly Rodriguez, health and safety specialist for the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents TSA officers.
Not only is there a strong body of evidence indicating that the backscatter X-ray scanners being pushed by the TSA pose serious health risks, but they have been shown to be relatively ineffective at disclosing material hidden in the groin area and body cavities. As Rafi Sela, the leading Israeli airport security expert, remarked about the scanners, “I don’t know why everybody is running to buy these expensive and useless machines. I can overcome the body scanners with enough explosives to bring down a Boeing 747. That’s why we haven’t put them in our airport.” By “our airport,” Sela is referring to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport, which has some of the toughest security in the world.
To say that “we the people” have done a sorry job of holding our representatives accountable or standing up for our rights is putting it mildly, but there must be a limit to our temerity. At a minimum, the X-ray scanners need to be replaced with radio-frequency millimeter-wave scanners, which, unlike their counterparts, have not been shown to cause cancer in humans. And the DHS and TSA need to go back to the drawing board and find a better way to protect national security without sacrificing our health and our freedoms.
We have been the unwitting victims of a system so corrupt that it spans all branches of government from the power-hungry agencies under the executive branch and the corporate puppets within the legislative branch to a judiciary that is, more often that not, elitist and biased towards government entities and corporations. The scanners are a perfect example of this collusion between corporate lobbyists and government officials. Even the Occupy movements, which claim to oppose the corpocracy, fail to recognize that we have been sold to the highest bidder by those very individuals tasked with looking out for our best interests–our representatives in Congress and in the White House.
Indeed, we are ruled by an elite class of individuals who are completely out of touch with the travails of the average American. We are relatively expendable in the eyes of government–faceless numbers of individuals who serve one purpose, which is to keep the government machine running through our labor and our tax dollars. Those in power aren’t losing any sleep over the indignities we are being made to suffer or the possible risks to our health. All they care about are power and control.
Moreover, the government officials who have foisted these scanners on us–President Obama, whose Stimulus Bill is funding the installation of the devices in airports across the country; members of Congress, who have pushed for the technology to be implemented in the airports; and Janet Napolitano and John Pistole, who have been adamant about subjecting the American people to all manner of indignities and rights violations for the sake of security–don’t have to go through the scanners (they have the luxury–at taxpayer expense, of course–of flying on private or government planes and having security clearances that allow them to breeze past such barriers), so there’s no risk to them medically.
While we’ve suffered countless abuses since 9/11, the terrorist attacks are among the least of what we’ve had to endure. In the name of national security, we’ve been subjected to government agents wiretapping our phones, reading our mail, monitoring our emails, and carrying out warrantless “black bag” searches of our homes. Then we had to deal with surveillance cameras mounted on street corners and in traffic lights, weather satellites co-opted for use as spy cameras from space, and thermal sensory imaging devices that can detect heat and movement through walls. Now we find ourselves subjected to cancer-causing full-body scanners in airports, and all the government can say is that it’s “a really, really small amount relative to the security benefit you’re going to get.”
What will it take for Americans to finally say enough is enough?
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. His new book The Freedom Wars (TRI Press) is available online at www.amazon.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at www.rutherford.org
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