Are airport x-ray machines bad for your health?

A man in a scanWe all know from wearing those iron aprons at the dentist that x-rays are not good for you. Radiation is dangerous, and radiation poisoning can lead to very serious health problems and even death.

Radiation poisoning usually occurs when someone is exposed to a heavy amount of radiation for a short period of time, but in rarer cases, long term exposure to small doses can also be damaging. So, should frequent fliers be worried? What about pilots and cabin crew?

Millimeter-wave imaging-technology units, which are currently operating in 19 airports, don’t produce the kind of radiation we get from x-rays, but backscatter units like this do. Following the terrorism attempt on Christmas, the US has just ordered 150 backscatter screening systems (like the above).

Is it dangerous? Probably not. Rodale reports: “According to TSA, the amount of radiation you’re exposed to during a two-second millimeter-wave scan exposes you to radio-wave radiation that is 10,000 times less powerful than radiation levels that pulse from a cellphone.” They also note that the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurement “found that a traveler subjected to at least 2,500 backscatter scans per year would barely reach the Negligible Individual Dose.”

Wait. Barely? That’s not really what we wanted to hear, but 2,500 would come to seven scans per day, every day. At that point, you’re not a traveler, you just have a weird hobby.

The concern that no one can shake (besides that of privacy) is that of machine stability and maintenance. Backscatter scanners do have the capability of doing harm; they just won’t if they’re functioning properly. Rodale adds, “If you feel uncomfortable going through advanced-imaging airport body-scan machines, know that you do have the right to an alternative search, although it may be in the form of a more invasive pat-down-type search by a security worker.”

For more information on radiation poisoning and radiation sickness, visit

[via Rodale]