Are Airport Full-Body Scanners Dangerous?

VIDEO: Rick Seaney looks at airport body scanners.

Did you hear the latest? Last month, a pilot for ExpressJet -- which some of you may have flown under the name Continental Express -- refused to go through a body scan imaging machine at the airport.

You don't have to; you can always opt for the full body pat-down instead. Only he refused that, too. He was agreeable to going through a metal detector but that wasn't good enough for security and at last report his job is "on hold." (I've asked ExpressJet for comment but have received no response).

One thing I'd ask the pilot: How would you feel if one of your passengers opted out of such screenings?

I recently went through both screenings, the body scan machine and the full body pat-down, and I'm not exactly crazy about either one. That said, I don't agree with some Transportation Security Administration critics who call airport security mere "theater."

But I do have questions about body scanners and I got some answers -- and I'll tell you if I'd go though one again in just a second.

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Have you been through one of these Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) machines, what most of us refer to as body scanners? It's pretty simple, actually -- put your arms up, wait 10 seconds and you're your good to go. Painless.

Or is it? Some have concerns about safety; if not now, maybe down the road. When I chatted with TSA spokesman Nico Melendez at LAX a few weeks ago, he was patient if a little weary-sounding when he answered my questions (and I wrote about other concerns I raised with him in an earlier column on airport security). I'm sure he's answered these questions many times before.

"Let's put it this way," said the TSA's Melendez, "We would not put a piece of technology in an airport if it was dangerous to passengers and if it was dangerous to our workforce. The emissions from that technology are less than [what] anyone would get from just a basic cell phone conversation." He added that the technology does not penetrate the skin.

On the TSA website, officials have documented the safety of the technology used by both body scan systems -- millimeter wave and backscatter X-ray -- and the evidence looks persuasive ("In 17 minutes of ordinary living, a person receives more radiation from naturally occurring sources than from one scan.") But will that quell all doubts? I suspect not.

And there's another issue, too: privacy.

Atlanta-based flier David Bernknopf, a partner in a video production company, has undergone body scanning numerous times, but admits, "I can't help but feel a bit creeped out by the process."

He's not the only one.

For a lot of people, it's the fear that somehow naked pictures of them will go viral on the Internet. Or maybe just the nagging sense that a TSA officer is looking at their scan -- and laughing (or lusting).

Again, if that's what you believe, it may be impossible to change your mind, but the TSA's Melendez is adamant that "naked" images do not exist. "Essentially, what we did is we dumbed down the image [for the back scan machine]; now, the image is much like a gingerbread cookie," he said, adding "It's the outline of a body."

As for the millimeter wave machine, he says you can see such things as underwear lines but no physical detail, plus the person's face is blurred.

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