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Nov. 18, 2010

Airport Radiation: What About The Baggage Screeners?

by Ira Flatow

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Yes, we’ve been hearing lots about getting a full body screen at the airport. If you are fearful of the radiation – I mean the low level x-rays – you don’t have to submit to the screening; you can opt for the the full body frisk.
 
But what about the baggage screeners who stand by those baggage x-ray machines for hours? How much x-radiation are they getting? We don’t know because hardly any of them wear dosimeters, i.e. badges that measure cumulative exposure to radiation. Just about any medical professional who works with or near an X-ray machine – doctor, dentist, technician – wears that badge to know just how much radiation he or she is getting. But have you ever seen a TSA worker wearing one? I haven’t. But I’ve questioned quite a few of them about their exposure potential.
 
Comments:

“Yeah, we’re getting a bit of radiation, but not enough to worry about.” How much? “I don’t know.”
” I’m concerned. I asked if I could wear a radiation badge. They said no.”
” I wanted to wear a badge but was told I could wear one only if it was hidden in my pocket.”
The implication here: don’t scare the customers.
 
The manufacturers claim that the machines are safe, but how do we know if one is malfunctioning or how much the workers are getting if we don’t measure the actual exposure.
 
The TSA wanted to know, too. So it asked NIOSH, which is charged with occupational safety and health, to conduct an independent survey. NIOSH checked the x-ray machines and the TSA screeners at 12 airports. And it found:
 
– “Doses for some of the baggage screeners exceeded the maximum dose for the public.”
– “We observed unsafe work practices such as reaching into EDS machines to clear bag jams.”
– ” Some EDS machines were not well maintained (i.e., they had bent curtain rods and missing curtain flaps).”
– “Most EDS machines emitted low levels of radiation; a few exceeded regulatory limits.”
– ” Given the strengths and weaknesses of this study, the need for a routine radiation dosimetry program for TSA screeners can neither be justified nor refuted at this time. Approximately 90% of the doses that screeners received were below 1 mrem, but some doses were at levels that warrant further action. Therefore, additional monthly or quarterly dosimetry targeted at specific airports for at least a year may be useful to evaluate the high doses reported in this evaluation.”
-”Mandatory rather than voluntary participation in the dosimetry program would address a weakness of this study.”
And it summarized (in part): NIOSH investigators determined that at the time of this evaluation, TSA baggage screeners at the 12 surveyed airports received insufficient radiation safety training and that EDS equipment was being inadequately or inconsistently maintained. The insufficient training and inadequate equipment maintenance could contribute to unnecessary occupational radiation exposures for TSA baggage screeners.
 
This report was published in 2008. . I first blogged about this potential health threat back in September and received interesting comments from concerned TSA workers. If you are a TSA worker, please download and read the full NIOSH report and if you are still concerned about your safety, please let us all know why.
About Ira Flatow

Ira is the host and executive producer of Science Friday.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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