Tuesday, March 15, 2011

TSA, Radiation, and "Record-keeping" Errors

Right around the time a 9.0 tsunami struck Japan and left in its wake the worst nuclear reactor disaster since Chernobyl, the Transportation Security Administration made public the results of its internal review that shows what they call "record-keeping errors" and miscalculations by TSA contractors.

These contractor errors, as CNN reports, relate to assessing the risk from radiation of full-body scanners, and have prompted the Agency to call for the re-testing of radiation levels.

On Wednesday, the House will hold a hearing to investigate the oversight of full-body scanners by the TSA.

Given the non-stop media coverage of radiation threat from fires, and meltdowns at four Japanese nuclear reactors, and the unprecedented sale of potassium iodide here in the U.S., it seems only sensible that our government should demand oversight from the TSA of full-body X-ray scanners of which 80% of Americans approve, but which are deemed to be a cancer risk by medical experts. There isn't a whole lot Congress can do about a wind-driven nuclear cloud that spreads over the northwest, but there is something Congress can do about the proliferation of inconclusively tested, but lucrative X-ray body scanners.

While Mom and Pop Jones, in Seattle, are running to their local pharmacy to get their hands on as much potassium iodide as possible, they don't think twice about radiation risk from going through full-body scanners on their way to visit the grandkids for Thanksgiving.

What's more, a leading supplier of potassium iodide, as the Wall Street Journal reports, "quickly sold out of its supply of more than 10,000 14-tablet packages on Saturday," and the company was getting about three orders a minute at one point.

Not a peep about popping a potassium pill before flying, or before entering a federal building from anyone either, only more concern about inhaling radiation from thousands of miles away. We know the shares of one pharmaceutical company went through the roof over the past week.

Why should anyone be scared of body X-ray that's designed to keep us safe? Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano smugly dismisses any radiation threat from full-body scanners saying that the amount of exposure is equal to a few minutes of flying time. It doesn't seem to bother Homeland Security that several medical experts might take issue with that statement, either.

Hopefully, Congress won't be as dismissive when, at Wednesday's hearing on TSA oversight, they consider that the Agency's own inquiry found problems with "more than a quarter of the reports it reviewed," according to CNN.

While the TSA insists that these calculation errors have nothing to do with full-body X-ray scanning safety, there are more than a few highly respected scientists who would beg to differ. As I reported in November, in The Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jayne-lyn-stahl/scientist-challenge-airport-bodyscanners-_b_788230.html, those who are experts in the field are not as dismissive as Ms. Napolitano when it comes to consumer safety.

There are easily something like two million people who fly every day. Many business travellers fly often, and are at repeated risk of contamination from full-body radiation scanners.

Importantly, it isn't only the dose of radiation to which one is exposed that counts. Scientists have said that regular exposure to even low doses of radiation can very well lead to cancer.

And, full-body scanners aren't limited to airports, but they are now also being used in some public schools, and federal buildings.

The TSA's plan to re-test as many of the full body X-ray scanners as possible at the end of this month is a good one, as is posting the results of radiation tests on the TSA's Web site, but anything less than the scrupulous supervision Japanese government, and Japanese scientists are giving to radiation from their reactor meltdowns is short-changing the public.

Congress will be derelict in its duties if it fails to demand accountability from any government agency that holds not only the public's trust, but the public's health in its hands.