Frequent Fliers: What are the Radiation Risks?


With the implementation of full-body security scanners at airport checkpoints, many people are concerned about the possibility of potential health risks associated with increased exposure to radiation. While the Food and Drug Administration insists that the scanners are safe for the average traveler, pilots, flight attendants, and other “frequent fliers” should know their radiation risks from all aspects of air travel.

Radiation Risk from Body Scanners Very Low, says FDA

Currently, there are 385 scanners installed across 68 airports in the country by the Transportation Security Administration. The total number of imaging machines is expected to near 1,000 by the end of 2011, according to the TSA.

The technology used in many of those scanners is called a “Backscatter” x-ray. Unlike diagnostic x-rays one would receive in a healthcare setting, these go through the clothes and create an image of the traveler without clothing. Scientists from the University of California-San Francisco claim that the x-ray dose is potentially dangerous because the new, and largely untested, technology concentrates the dose on the skin, increasing cancer risk.

Read: Do Full Body Scanners Pose Radiation Risk?

Over the past week, two of the world’s largest pilots’ unions, the US Airline Pilots Association and the Allied Pilots Association, announced boycotts of the full-body scanners stating that the TSA underestimates the health risks of such scans by as much as 5 to 20% based on two separate studies.


“While the TSA is telling us it’s completely safe,” said Captain Sam Mayer, the APA communication’s committee chairman, “that may be true for the occasional user, but we haven’t seen any data yet talking about the long term cumulative effects over time.”

Experts also cite children at being at increased risk because they are more sensitive to radiation.

Read: Full Body Scanners No Threat to Health, Privacy Still an Issue

The FDA states that the risk is “miniscule” and that devices meet the standard for a “general use” x-ray machine and that a person would have to have 1,000 scans a year before approaching the maximum allowed dose. Professor Peter Rez, a professor of physics at Arizona State University who conducted a study of the scanners, states that the risk of dying from body-scanner induced cancer for the average passenger was about 1 in 30 million.

A radiation risk factor that is of concern to those who fly frequently is the dose received from the sun and stars while the plane is in flight. At airline altitudes, exposure to radiation can be hundreds of times higher than on the surface of the earth.

A new study that will appear in the December issue of the Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal surmises that those who travel more than 85,000 miles a year should be classified as “radiation workers” because they may “easily exceed the allowable levels of exposure that are enforced…for medical and industrial facilities where radiation is encountered.”