Airport Full-Body Scanners Pose Little Risk to Health, Study Says

The radiation doses from full-body scanners were below recommended standards and considerably lower than radiation levels in other X-ray procedures, such as a mammogram, according to the study.

A study by the Marquette University College of Engineering says that full-body scanners used for security at the nation’s airports do not expose passengers to dangerous levels of radiation. The non-government-funded study examined the amount of radiation that full-body scanners transmit to individual organs. The research was completed by Taly Gilat Schmidt, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Marquette, and Michael E. Hoppe, a Marquette graduate student.

Their study estimated radiation exposure to 29 organs, including skin, eye lens, heart, and the brain—using complex mathematical models that represent the shape and tissue density of human bodies and organs. By comparison, previous studies funded through the Transportation Security Administration used more simplified, generic mathematical models, according to Marquette authors.

The Marquette study used four models: a 34-year-old male, a 26-year-old female, an 11-year-old female, and a 6-year-old male. The study found that radiation from full-body scanners was deposited below the skin in all four models, but the doses were below recommended standards and considerably lower than radiation levels in other X-ray procedures, such as a mammogram.

Gilat Schmidt noted the study was based on data provided from TSA. "Access to the machines for measurements and assessments is limited. Public disclosure of the systems' specifications would enable more accurate system modeling," said Gilat Schmidt.

The paper is currently available online and will be published in the June issue of Medical Physics.

Two types of scanners are currently being used in airports by the TSA: the backscatter X-ray and the millimeter wave scanner. The backscatter-type machines use low-level ionizing radiation to create two-sided images. Wave scanners use radio waves, instead of ionizing radiation, to create three-dimensional images.

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