Wednesday, November 24, 2010

What Price Security: Group of UCSF Challenge Airport Body Scanners

According to a recent CNN poll, 80% of Americans approve the use of airport full body X-ray scanners. Yet, back in April, a group of prominent scientists, physicians, and professors at the University of California San Francisco challenged their safety in a letter to Dr. John P. Holdren, the president's science assistant for science and technology.

Among the co-signers of the Holdren letter are a 2009 Nobel Laureate in Physiology, Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, her husband, John Sedat, Professor Emeritus at UCSF, and Dr, Marc Shuman, an internationally renowned cancer expert. Also signing the letter are UCSF professors whose expertise is in imaging, and crystallography.

In their letter, these scientists express "serious concern" about potential dangers posed by full body X-ray scanners. They contend that any possible perils caused by exposure to radiation can only be determined by a panel of medical physicists and radiation specialists who will take a look at all existing data independently, and without government oversight.

While some doctors have said that the danger from radiation exposure from a full body scan is less than that of a chest X-ray, or a mammogram, the doctors from UCSF disagree. They suggest that "a large fraction" of those exposed to this technology may be endangered.

The "large fraction" who may be at risk from these scanners include children and adolescents, anyone over 65, anyone with a compromised immune system, cancer patients, pregnant women, and even sperm may be compromised because of the proximity of testicles to the skin. Importantly, too, "mutagenesisprovoking" radiation may result in breast cancer in women.

They assert, too, that, while these new scanners operate at low frequencies of radiation, the concentration of low beam energies to the skin and tissue beneath are what comprise the gravest threat to health, "thus, while the dose would be safe if it were distributed throughout the entire body, the dose to the skin may be dangerously high."

The doctors lament that there is no "independent safety data" to prove this technology is safe. Instead, there has been a rush to manufacture, and install this equipment in airports around the country.

These eminent scientists describe major errors made before in a rush to find a solution; mistakes that imperiled the health of "thousands of people." As examples, they mention how, in the early days of HIV/AIDS, the CDC failed to recognize the risk factors in blood transfusions.

To clarify, these scientists, professors, and doctors are not saying that full body X-ray scanners are unsafe, but rather that the decision to subject the public to this technology without adequate review of possible immediate and longterm damage from exposure could prove to be a grave mistake.

But, it is not a mistake without a message. Unlike some earlier decisions to perform a medical procedure that has yet to be fully vetted, there is also a powerful lobby to market, and showcase dubious technology in the interest of bolstering the profit margin. Indeed, had he been the current head of Homeland Security, now lobbyist, Michael Chertoff would be called upon to account for his lobbying efforts, and own personal gain as a result of the proliferation of inadequately tested equipment in the name of national security. But, who better to figure out a way to make a buck off national security than the former tzar of homeland security?

As USA Today and Michael Winship have reported, in the past nine months alone, two companies have done very well in the airport body scan business. L-3 Communications has sold nearly $40 million in scanners, and dedicated more than $4 million to lobbying for them. Rapiscan Systems sold $41.2 million worth of scanners to the federal government after spending nearly $300,000 on lobbying. Clearly, the profits aren't in scientific research as to any potential hazard this technology may pose to our health.

Notably, too, those who want to capitalize on and exploit this technology have scored another victory as full body X-ray scanners, like the kind now used at some airports, are now popping up at courthouses. According to the Associated Press, two state courthouses in Colorado currently employ full body X-ray scanners, and U.S. Marshalls are exploring the prospect of using them widely. What next, X-ray full body scanners to replace metal detectors in inner city schools?

The risks to our health both now and in future, as these UCSF scientists assert, may far outweigh those posed by any terror attack. It's time not only to review the possible benefits of this technology, but to have experts more closely evaluate any adverse effects, or "opt-out" of X-ray body scans until they are able to do so.