Transportation Security Administration workers in Boston, Puerto Rico, and Portland have reported elevated rates of cancer, strokes, and heart disease among employees whose job it is to ogle travelers' naked bodies as they pass through full-body scanners. Does that mean the universally loathed machines are actually causing the deadly diseases? And are frequent flyers equally at risk of getting sick? Perhaps, but the sad part is the TSA doesn't seem to care much either way.
EPIC learned that TSA employees at Boston's Logan International Airport reported a suspected "cancer cluster" to their supervisors, only to have the higher-ups downplay the problem and refuse their request for dosimeters, badges that monitor radiation exposure and are routinely used in other industries where workers come in contact with X-rays and other potentially harmful forms of radiation.
"The Department, rather than acting on it or explaining its position, seems to have just dismissed it," EPIC's Marc Rotenburg told reporters earlier this week. "I don't think that's the way most other agencies would have acted in a similar situation if they were confronted with that question."
In response, TSA issued an official statement, saying they have "implemented stringent safety protocols to ensure that technology used at airports to screen people and property is safe for all passengers, as well as the TSA workforce." TSA also said the body scanners are "regularly tested to ensure the radiation emitted falls within the national safety standards."
But Milly Rodriguez, an occupational health and safety specialist for the American Federation of Government Employees (the TSA union), says that the government has been less than forthright when it comes to the potential health risks of the scanners.
"There's no independent studies right now that prove these things are safe," says Rodriguez, who testified before Congress last year on the same issue. "We've said to TSA, 'If there's all this info that you have that can show people than they're not at risk, that the levels are that low, why not share that information?' It has given employees the idea that if they're not given the information, there must be something to hide."
Locally, Ed Terry, the Pacific Northwest organizer for the TSA employee union, tells Seattle Weekly that workers at Portland International Airport have reported elevated rates of illness among people who spend their days in close proximity to the body scanners.
"They were concerned because of the high rate of employee cancer," Terry says. "But there's no data to back that up. Right now it's just employee concerns because so many of their co-workers had been going out with cancer."
Terry didn't know if TSA employees at SeaTac were similarly spooked. But, according to various experts who have analyzed the body scanners' radiation risks, they probably ought to at least be a little wary.
Reports from Johns Hopkins University and the National Institute of Standards and Technology--both of which were "publicly characterized" by TSA, according to EPIC--found that the radiation from the scanners could exceed the "general public dose limit." Dr Michael Love, who runs an X-ray lab at the department of biophysics and biophysical chemistry at the Johns Hopkins school of medicine went so far as to say that, "statistically someone is going to get skin cancer from these X-rays."
Another study, conducted last year by Dr David Brenner, head of Columbia University's center for radiological research, found that the scanners are likely to lead to an increase in a common type of skin cancer called basal cell carcinoma, which affects the head and neck, according to a report from the website Info Wars, which has doggedly covered the TSA scanner issue.
But even Rodriguez, the union health and safety expert, concedes that drawing a direct connection between the scanners and employee health woes is a bit of a stretch. "[Cancer clusters] are very difficult to show," Rodriguez said yesterday in a phone interview. "There are so many things that can cause cancer in a group of workers. They live in same community, so it could be something there. They're all in similar age groups. It's just so difficult to isolate the cause."