The European Union’s ban on Backscatter ionizing radiation x-ray machines is good news for every flier, even though many people believe they are safe. In a press release the EU backs its decision by highlighting concerns over health and privacy rights. Europe finds itself in an enviable position compared to the United States where the machines are still in use often without the option of an enhanced pat down.
The controversy surrounding these machines is not as easy and straight forward as it seems. Even with the wide coverage of this controversy most people don’t understand the health issue properly.
Before we can discuss the health issue it is important to point out that there are in fact two types of machine in use. Backscatter ionizing radiation x-ray machines and millimetre wave machines. You can tell the difference when you look at the set up of each. The millimetre wave machines are the ones that look like a giant test tube, while the Backscatter ones are those that have two separate blocks you stand in between.
The important difference between the two types of machine is that the Backscatter machines send ionizing radiation in to the body, while the millimetre wave machines do not (they use radio frequency waves). Both of them fall down on issues of privacy. To be clear the EU is banning the use of the Backscatter kind, made by a company called Rapiscan.
In practice there was never a rush by European countries to install these type of scanners nor was there a specific requirement for them to do so. Only a handful of countries trialled them and their feedback was mixed. Germany gave them the thumbs down and labelled them ineffective, while the UK has had a few installed.
The best argument for abandoning the use of these machines comes from the University of California San Francisco where academics put their name to a letter sent to the Assistant to the President of the United States on Science and Technology. These academics are specialists in Biochemistry, Biophysics, Radiology, X-ray Crystallography and Cancer and they all ask for an independent review of the Backscatter technology.
In their letter to the Whitehouse they explode a myths about these dangerous machines reported in the press. The radiation dose is often equated with the same dose you would get from flying or having a chest x-ray. They say that is not correct, as those measurements take account of the whole body while the Backscatter machines are only absorbed to the skin.
If you are still not convinced look no further than the archives of the National Academy of Sciences. The academy has a tome of research literature (peer-reviewed) on the harmful effects of low dose ionizing radiation going back a decade or so.
As the National Opt Out Day sponsored by WeWontFly.com rolls around on November 24th spare a thought for all those people who don’t get the choice to opt out and show your support by becoming aware and getting involved.