Health expert has some TSA screening concerns

By Maria-Jose Subiria


There has been much debate about health risks that may arise due to screenings conducted by Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers.

According to Dr. Jane Orient, executive director of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, among some concerns are radiation exposures and the transmission of infectious diseases.

Orient said frequent travelers shouldn't worry about the radiation emitted by the Advanced Imaging Technology, because the scanner releases about 0.01 millirad of radiation. "Radiation comes from cosmic rays," said Orient, during a telephone interview. "You get more of them when you are in an airplane."

"Just by living, you get more radiation than that," she added. Orient said 100,000 millirad, or more, of radiation is considered a danger to individuals.

"Some scientists warn that [backscatter technology] has not been properly studied, [however,] and one nuclear expert told me he is going to opt out of the scan," she said.

According to TSA's web site -- www.tsa.gov -- imaging technology meets national health and safety standards. The web site said that The Center for Devices and Radiological Health of the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institute for Standards and Technology, and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, all evaluated the backscatter technology of the device., and the results validated that the radiation doses for the individuals being screened, operators and bystanders were well below the dose limits designated by the American National Standards Institute.

"It [Advanced Imaging Technology] enables us to detect metallic and non-metallic items, which may be concealed within clothing," added Jon Allen, a spokesperson for TSA.

Orient, however, said she is more concerned with the possible transmission of infectious diseases through enhanced pat-down procedures the TSA has recently implemented for security purposes.

She said TSA officers, who touch a person's skin while conducting a pat-down, and do not change their gloves before repeating the process with the next passenger, can transmit diseases, such as genital warts; MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), an infection caused by a strain of staph bacteria which is resistant to antibiotics; and Streptococcus, a bacterium often found in the throat and skin, which causes strep throat or impetigo.

Orient said TSA officers should throw away their gloves each time they pat down new passengers, by pulling them off their hands. "Whatever is on your hands can be transmitted," she said.

Allen responded that TSA officers change their gloves with each pat-down.

"Pat-downs are one important tool to help TSA detect hidden and dangerous items, such as explosives," added TSA officials, in a prepared statement. "Passengers should continue to expect an unpredictable mix of security layers that include explosives-trace detection, advanced-imaging technology, canine teams, among others."

"The most common reasons someone would receive a pat-down are that they 'alarmed' at the walk-through metal detector or during advanced imaging technology screening," said Allen.

Orient said she also disagrees with the screening choices TSA has made, because they limit a person's freedom, and rights of personal control. "The TSA process treats American travelers ... like prisoners, and strips them of Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures," she said.

In response, TSA officials said, "Only a small percentage of the traveling public receives a pat-down as they travel through the security checkpoint. Approximately 2 million people fly in the United States every day. The number of complaints is extremely low."

As of Nov. 23, fewer than 3 percent of passengers receive pat-downs, officials said. They also said there are two harmful myths circulating about the security process: that all children will receive pat-downs, and that pat-downs are punishment for opting out of Advanced Imaging Technology.

Not all children receive pat-downs, they said. TSA officers, officials said, are trained to work with parents to assure a respectful screening process for the family involved. Children, 12 years old and under, who require additional screening, will receive a modified pat-down.

And TSA pat-downs, they said, are not a punishment for passengers who do not choose the Advanced Imaging Technology. "There's nothing punitive about it. It just makes good security sense," they said. "And the weapons and other dangerous and prohibited items we've found during pat-downs speak to this."