The Medical Problems of Airport Screening: It’s Not Just the Radiation


By: Jane M. Orient, M.D.

The radiation dose is likely the least of the problems with airport screening.

If operating as specified, a scanner delivers about 0.01 millirad of radiation, or 0.00001 rad.  You unavoidably get 10,000 times as much from the natural environment every year.The worry is not surprising in a nation that has been barraged with antinuclear propaganda for decades. Keeping people terrified of doses even tinier than those from airport scanners seems to be government policy. Fearmongering has likely caused a $10 trillion loss to our economy by stopping the expansion of nuclear power plants, and greater dependency on hostile foreigners for energy—including those who sponsor terrorism.

We must not induce unreasoned fear, not even to oppose an outrageous assault on liberty. There is, however, another aspect to the airport scanners. They use an ingenious low-energy backscatter technique, which is apparently wonderful for identifying explosives in cargo. Since the radiation doesn’t penetrate far, it wouldn’t affect an unborn baby. But it does concentrate the dose in the skin.

Some scientists warn that this effect has not been properly studied, and one nuclear medicine expert told me that he is going to opt out of the scan. I think this much is clear: if you had a deadly disease, and the scanner were an FDA-regulated device that might save your life, your doctor wouldn’t be allowed to use it, because of inadequate study.

Also, if your doctor had an ownership interest in the scanner, he might go to federal prison for referring you for a scan. These anti-kickback laws, however, do not apply to the influential government cronies who stand to make a fortune from the scanners.

Leaving aside the radiation, let’s look at U.S. airport security from the perspective of a terrorist, or a Martian. We have TSA agents scurrying about, fighting the last war against the shoe and the underwear bombers, both caught by vigilant human beings. The threat is from aspiring martyrs, who are captive to an ideology that advocates turning its sons and daughters, even little children, into bombs.

So is the remedy to subject all Americans to virtual strip searches, and even little children to groping that we teach them is wrong? Does it make us safe, and are the medical and psychological side effects worth it?

Inmates of Nazi concentration camps were frequently subjected to strip searches. It was probably just one more way to dehumanize the prisoners.

The TSA process treats American travelers (except congressmen and other significant people) like prisoners, and strips them of Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. It subjects them to enhanced risk of loss (or theft) of important things like their indispensable government-issued photo ID. While in the scanner, their luggage is unattended—what about that risk of “introduction of items without their knowledge”? And what about the transmission of scabies, crab lice, bedbug larvae, and all manner of germs by TSA gropers? Do they change gloves and wash their hands between subjects, as hospital personnel must do?

The option of a “private room” is no protection against violation of dignity. We need, so to speak, transparency in government operations. Let Americans see—and record on video—their protectors in action. Let them watch agents search a screaming three year old to see whether it makes them feel safer.

How much “safety” is enough? Will a virtual stripping suffice, or do we need an invasive body cavity search of everyone? Even then, there would be threats. Swallowed explosives detonated by radio frequency. A bomb set off in the crowd waiting to get through security. A blast in the luggage compartment. A missile launch.

The Israelis use intelligence, but Americans seem to have ruled that out, to keep our agents safe from the charge of “profiling.”

Safety requires vigilance, not mindless rules. We need plainclothes observers, watching for tell-tale behavior. We might consider screening polygraphs with questions such as “Where do you expect to be this evening?” For suspected explosives, we have sniffers: technologic ones, and dogs.

Watching the holiday scene at the airport may awaken Americans to the reality that we are not rich enough or powerful enough to keep acting this stupid.

Use those scanners to check luggage and cargo. But still, it’s not the radiation that’s the problem; it’s the abandonment of common sense.

Jane M. Orient, M.D., On Air contributor speaking on Healthcare Reform.  Dr. Orient has appeared on NBC, MSNBC, ABC and many major broadcast venues throughout the US, as well and her Op-eds have been printed in hundreds of local and international newspapers, magazines and followed on major blogs.


Dr. Orient is the Executive Director of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons.  She has been in solo practice of general internal medicine since 1981 and is a clinical lecturer in medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. She received her undergraduate degrees in chemistry and mathematics from the University of Arizona, and her M.D. from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. She is the author of Sapira’s Art and Science of Bedside Diagnosis; the fourth edition has just been published by Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins. She also authored YOUR Doctor Is Not In: Healthy Skepticism about National Health Care, published by Crown. She is the executive director of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, a voice for patients’ and physicians’ independence since 1943. Complete curriculum vitae posted at


  1. Government is pushing to see how much abuse we will take. Will we allow ourselves and our young children to be molested by strangers? Maybe they will next reduce healthcare costs by mandating pelvic exams and prostate exams as part of the “screening process” by the TSA whenever we travel. Can restrictions on travel be far behind? I for one will not fly unless I have no other choice. They will probably not let me fly, because I fully intend to announce in a loud voice “I refuse to be pornagraphically body scanned, and am Homophobic, so I insist any pat down be by an “opposate sex” TSA agent.”

  2. I don’t understand- you feel people are unreasonably concerned about radiation from nuclear power (which has not been adequately medically studied), but should be concerned about 0.01 millirad of radiation (which has not been adequately medically studied). I thought with the introduction to the piece, you would have felt confident because you are not “terrified of tiny doses” of radiation because of government “fear mongering”. Frankly, I would rather go through an airport scanner than have a nuclear power plant built in my town. (But if you feel very confident about the safety of nuclear power, please don’t hesitate to support building a plant near your home. We can all use the electricity!) I do agree with your ideas that we need to do more human intelligence, and employ a layered approach to security, with more government transparency and public debate.

  3. Common sense does suggest doing what worked – Israeli style profiling.

    Radiation dose even for flight crews would be under 1% of their increase from altitude
    or what I get from sitting on thoriated welding rods to get benefit more like
    low- cancer Denver (vs coast) background radiation.

  4. In the final analysis those in government should not subject their bosses, the American people who pay their salaries and perks, to anything they themselves do not want to be subjected to. Who in God’s creation do they think they are?

  5. I am not a psychiatrist, but is there a group of people for whom these searches could result in significant mental damage?
    My personal opinion is that these measures are at least in part reflective of BHO’s and his supporter’s concerns for damages to them politically should an attack succeed far outweighs their concern for the public. Particularly since the flying public likely includes many fewer BHO supporters than the public at large.

  6. WOW! What started out as a reasonable, intelligent piece became a zealous rant? I agree we could do better, but TSA transferring bed bugs, crabs & lice? Please people, calm down. Until we get a better process, they are doing the best they can to keep us safe. If you don’t like it: DRIVE, don’t fly.

  7. I thought we were fighting them over there so that we wouldn’t have to fight them over here. How’s that working out?
    The police state that is developing here is a direct result of the US meddling in the foreign affairs of other nations, whose citizens inevitably learn to hate us– not because we’re free but because we bomb their wedding parties and school children. How would you feel if China bombed and killed your family in the name of national security.
    The war on terror should have been nothing more than the relentless pursuit of the perpetrators of 9-11. We would have been a lot safer. Now we’re bombing Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and possibly Somalia– while all of us get stripped searched. Can you connect the dots?

    This isn’t just my opinion (or Ron Paul’s either). Listen to James Madison, the father of our Constitution:
    “The means of defense against foreign danger historically have become the instruments of tyranny at home.”

    The police state in the US is just getting started.

  8. We must demand that our federal government representatives, every single one including the commander in chief, also be subjected to each new law that is passed, NO exceptions! Oh, and that includes muslim women in burqas, even if they have security with them, no matter how much money they have paid somebody off to bypass the procedure. My personal preference is that TSA employees be allowed to use intelligence over groping gestures. In America our Constitution says all people are equal, nobody is above the law. We should demand that we keep it this way!

  9. The U.S. is very quickly becoming a huge police state run by corrupt officials and radicals. Starting today I will drive everywhere i travel before I subject my wife or myself to this type of unreasonable screening at airports. The metal detectors and wanding procedures were the last straw. I draw the line at this new procedure. Every American citizen is presumed guilty at the TSA checkpoint. Until the TSA and HHS can prove every senior citizen and young child in America are terrorists we should object to these unconstitutional searches. People “the terrorists have won”. Osama Bin Laden must be laughing his ass off in some cave in Pakistan.

  10. Political correctness and fear of the charge of racial profiling have motivated our spineless politicians into this current unconstitutional screening mess. How much more sense would it make to use the Israeli system of intelligently screening and profiling rather than subjecting all innocent travelers to dehumanizing searches? I wonder who in our current inept administration has financial connections to the enhanced scanner manufacturer?

  11. If the law in Arizona is wrong so are airport security measures, even more so as I traveled for business a great deal following 911 and the security points don’t work. The goverment is constantly testing their own check points and their people regularly get weapons through the check points. Stop in any airport and ask a store proprietor near a check point. Hey on another note why don’t we check people boarding trains? true its difficult to run a train into a building however trains cary a lot of people who could be killed if a device was brought on.