Noel Brinkerhoff and David Wallechinsky
All Gov

November 3, 2011

In the late 1990s, experts insisted it was highly unlikely the U.S. would rely on new x-ray body scanners at airports and other security checkpoints. But the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, reversed that thinking and today there are hundreds of the machines in use, despite health concerns that have kept the technology out of Europe.
Some health specialists argue that even low-level radiation exposure poses an unacceptable risk to Americans going through airports. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), though, sees things differently, claiming body scanners are safe and effective. Nonetheless, on Tuesday John Pistole, the administrator of TSA, told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that his agency will authorize a new, independent study of x-ray and body scanner safety.
The safety of medical x-ray machines is overseen by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Non-medical x-ray machines, such as those used at airports, are less well-regulated. The FDA does have some power to set safety standards for such uses, but when airport scanners began to gain acceptance, the FDA allowed the scanner industry to set its own standards. As for TSA, it approved the scanners without even allowing a period of public comment.
About 250 x-ray scanners are currently in U.S. airports, along with 264 body scanners that use a different technology. TSA officials intend to expand these numbers because, they insist, it is imperative to keep terrorists from smuggling explosives onboard planes.
The growing use of the machines also has been aided by the lobbying work of former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, whose firm represents OSI Systems, one of two companies licensed to sell full-body scanners to the government.

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