Are Airport Full-Body Scanners Dangerous?

Rick Seaney investigates these controversial airport security devices.

October 21, 2010, 8:07 AM

Nov. 4, 2010 — -- 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.

Can I prove this to you? Not exactly, because I was not allowed to see my own image when I went through a scanner at Los Angeles International Airport recently. Conspiracy-minded folks may say "Aha!" but others, myself included, may take some solace from my failure to see the image: the TSA appears to be very serious about not allowing anyone access to such images other than the officer who works that detail.

And for the record, the TSA does not keep or store these images -- which as you might imagine, doesn't make law enforcement real happy -- plus, TSA officers who look at them cannot have cell phones, cameras or any recording devices with them in the small room where the images are displayed.

And just so you know, these security rooms are well away from the actual body scanning machines, so it's not like some TSA officer is going to pop his head out the door, stare at a passenger and say something like, "Hey, I wonder if that's the guy who just came through the line who looks like he needs to lose a few pounds." These officers do not see the objects of their scrutiny.

But here's the crux of the matter: do body scans do what they need to do?

I asked Melendez if such a machine would have detected explosives on last year's so-called underwear bomber who was arrested on Christmas Day after allegedly attempting to set off a bomb on a Northwest Airlines plane. He told me, "That's one of those questions that is impossible to answer. I can tell you the technology would make it a lot easier."

So where do I stand on the TSA's Advanced Imaging Technology? Still on the fence.

I prefer it to the full pat-down, which I found professional but uh, intrusive to say the least, and yes, a little embarrassing. But if given the choice between scan, pat-down and metal detector, I'll take the metal detector every time.

Are body imagine machines safe? I'm no scientist, but other products once thought to be completely benign like say, asbestos, have proven otherwise. On the other hand, there have been big concerns about cell phones, but those towers keep going up.

If I have to, I will go through the body scanner -- with some minor misgivings.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations that include ABC News, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the Associated Press and Bloomberg. His website,, offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deals.

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