Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

January 19, 2022
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Are the new airport scanners a medical menace?

We asked imaging specialist and regular Parkhurst Exchange contributor, Dr Michael K. McLennan

With increasing concerns regarding in-flight safety worldwide, many countries are employing full-body scanners to detect weapons less detectable by traditional means. The moral and ethical issues can be discussed elsewhere. Bottom line is: are the scanners themselves a health risk to travellers? Can they cause more harm than good? You decide.

There are 2 types of scanners being used:
· Millimetre wave technology (MMW) using low-level radio waves; with no ionizing radiation/x-rays. These are the ones being used in Canada. Risk assessment: negligible to zero.
· Backscatter technology employing weak x-rays that bounce off a traveller's skin to create an image for analysis. These are the scanners creating the controversy.

The radiation from a backscatter scan is 0.02 microsieverts (uSv), which is incredibly low. Consider that flying at altitude during the day delivers 0.02 uSv to each passenger every 2 to 3 minutes, or that a chest x-ray delivers 1000 times that dosage. Note also that the average person in North America receives an effective dose of 3mSv (3000 uSv) from background radiation every year.

There may be very slight estimated risk to children (delayed skin cancer) from these scanners, but no increased risk to pregnant women (the x-rays do not penetrate the uterus).

Any level of radiation involves some risk. And while medical radiation is not voluntary (and is low risk for a greater health benefit), air travel is. Passengers still concerned can elect to avoid the backscatter scanners and go through a vigorous pat-down instead. Either of which is better than the alternative — being on board during a preventable terrorist act.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.


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