What You Should Know About X-Ray Safety and Backscatter Scanners

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Most Americans will be relieved to know that X-ray backscatter scans are no longer utilized at airports. Therefore, they are no longer a source of everyday radiation for ordinary passengers. 

It’s still unclear if these devices constituted a danger — and how serious a threat they presented. Meanwhile, the bulk of these potentially dangerous devices have been scrapped and replaced with Advanced Image Technology, a new kind of body scanning technology that does not depend on ionizing radiation (AIT). 

The great news for American citizens and other travelers passing through security checks at more than 200 airports across the country is that these AIT body scanners aren’t just safer. They use non-invasive millimeter-wave scanning technology), but they’re still far less disruptive than their backscatter x-ray predecessors. 

Is X-Ray Technology with Backscatter Harmful?

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) describes that whole-body scanning devices are crucial for airport and flight security because they can detect weapons, explosives, and other dangers terror suspects are trying to hide inside their bodies to activate later.

Americans and other tourists were naturally worried about the safety and well-being of themselves, other travelers, and the country after September 11, 2001. Consequently, the federal government swiftly enacted the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, and the Transportation Security Administration rushed to deploy x-ray backscatter equipment in key airport security areas. 

The idea is these units would use “Computerized Target Recognition” apps to replace the somewhat accurate anatomy images with more cartoon-like portrayals. It would show whatever areas of concern (obvious guns, non-anatomical pieces/parts, etc.) so security personnel could respond appropriately.

Instead, the public was outraged because most Americans and foreign visitors believed the pictures were still a significant invasion of privacy. 

More significantly, many people were worried that there wasn’t enough evidence to support the operation’s risk/benefit ratio – especially because backscatter x-ray equipment, like other types of x-ray technologies, exposed humans to little ionizing radiation.

“The energy produced by a backscatter X-ray is a kind of ionizing radiation that destroys chemical bonds,” according to Wikipedia. Even at extremely tiny doses, ionizing radiation is thought to be carcinogenic, although the effects of the levels used in airport scanners are thought to be minimal for a person. 

Is there any scientific evidence?

One research predicted that if one million individuals were subjected to 520 scans in a year, the scanner would cause four more cancers, compared to the 600 additional cancers considered higher doses of radiation during flight.”

Backscatter x-ray machines were soon suspected as a consequence of widespread discoveries like these and publications, speeches, and letters made by scientists and medical professionals in the area. 

The European Union outlawed them in 2012, which fueled opposition in the United States. The first models of backscatter x-ray equipment were dismantled in May of 2013. Most have been upgraded with AIT or millimeter-wave scanning equipment. However, some security scanners at the 25 biggest US airports still use newer, “better” backscatter x-ray technology.

Backscatter X-Ray Scanners, as well as Millimeter Wave Scanners, are two different types of X-Ray scanners.

Millimeter waver scanners, also known as AIT scanners, vary from x-ray scanners in that the waves are comparable to microwaves. Millimeter-wave (mmw) scanners utilize waves equivalent to microwaves, a non-ionizing form of radiation, rather than x-rays, which penetrate and travel through the whole human body. 

Because the waves produced by microwaves are more significant than those produced by x-ray backscatter devices, they are less likely to harm tiny human proteins, and DNA like nuclear radiation did.