Being scanned at airport security check points by full body scanners has become a part of life for everyone who travels. Once we remove our belts, shoes, and jackets and cast aside our earthly possessions, we are subject to internal scanning by machines that could be altering our DNA, all in the name of safety and security.
In November 2011, members of the European Union banned the use of x-ray body scanners in airports throughout the EU because of “health and safety” concerns-including damage to DNA. The exact number of cancer cases attributed to use of these scanners has been debated, with one estimate being six to 100 airline passengers per year getting cancer associated with exposure to the scanners.
When it was announced in January 2013 that airports in the United States would be eliminating these questionable scanners, the stated reason was not the health issue that concerned officials in other parts of the world but that experts were unable to develop congressionally mandated privacy software in time. The old units were removed and replaced by other technology, known as millimeter wave scanners. Rather than radiation, these machines expose airline passengers to high-frequency energy particles called terahertz photons. But are these newer scanners safer than the old ones?
The TSA (Transportation Safety Administration) insists that the new technology “uses non-ionizing radio-frequency energy in the millimeter spectrum with no known adverse health effects.”
According to at least one group of researchers, that's not the case. At the Center for Nonlinear Studies at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, a group of scientists reported that terahertz waves have an ability to “unzip double-stranded DNA, creating bubbles that could significantly interfere with processes such as gene expression and DNA replication.”
Several decades ago, a team of Russian scientists evaluated the impact of millimeter waves on the chromatin conformational state (aka, DNA, RNA, and proteins) on animals and found that they induces “statistically significant changes” at millimeter waves similar to those used by airport scanners. The authors also noted that “such important indices as gene expression, rate of cell division as well as the rates of DNA and protein synthesis were affected” by millimeter waves.
In one of the most recent reports on millimeter wave technology and airport scanners appearing in the Journal of Radiation Research and Applied Sciences, the authors noted that although such scanners are being used extensively at airport security check points, “there is still an alarmingly small amount of information about its potential health effects.” Even though these scanners are believed to be less dangerous for our health, “the long term effects of this type of radiation are still uncertain.”
Security precautions at airports are here to stay, which means, for now we need to get used to scanning devices. If you are concerned about exposure to the newer airport scanners, you can opt for a pat down instead (this is what I do when I travel). Just be sure to leave the house a little earlier to allow for the extra time you'll need to get through security (sometimes there is a wait for female Officers). However, in my opinion it is a small price to pay for peace of mind.
Accardo J, Chaudbry MA. Radiation exposure and privacy concerns surrounding full-body scanners in airports. Journal of Radiation Research and Applied Sciences 2014 Apr; 7(2): 198-200
Belvaev IY, Kraychenko VG. Resonance effect of low-intensity millimeter waves on the chromatin conformational state of rat thymocytes. Z. Naturforsch 1994; 49c: 352-58
Digital Trends. Airport x-ray body scanners banned in Europe over cancer risks
European Commission press release. Aviation security: Commission adopts new rules on the use of security scanners at European airports. 2011 November
Forti K. Los Alamos study finds airport scanners can rip apart and alter DNA. Collective Evolution
Graball M. US government glossed over cancer concerns as it rolled out airport X-ray scanners. 2011 Nov 1. ProPublica
Transportation Safety Administration. Screening technology