Airport body scanners can cause cancer: Experts

Radiation from the scanners has been underestimated and could be particularly risky for children.

Last Updated: Jul 21, 2010, 13:41 PM IST

Houston: Airport body scanners that will become a reality at all major US airports from August to detect hidden weapons and liquid explosives, could lead to an increase in skin cancer, experts say.

About 450 machines will be used in airports nationwide by the end of the year and 142 have already been installed in airports such as Boston, Dallas-Fort Worth, New York`s JFK, San Francisco and Miami.

Scientists say radiation from the scanners has been underestimated and could be particularly risky for children.

They say that the low level beam does deliver a small dose of radiation to the body but because the beam concentrates on the skin, one of the most radiation-sensitive organs of the human body that dose may be up to 20 times higher than first estimated.

Dr David Brenner, head of Columbia University`s Centre for Radiological Research, said although the danger posed to the individual passenger is `very low`, he is urging researchers to carry out more tests on the device to look at the way it affects specific groups who could be more sensitive to radiation.

He said children and passengers with gene mutations - around one in 20 of the population are more at risk as they are less able to repair X-ray damage to their DNA.

Dr Brenner, who is originally from Liverpool but now works at the New York university, said, "The individual risks associated with X-ray backscatter scanners are probably extremely small.

If all 800 million people who use airports every year were screened with X-rays then the very small individual risk multiplied by the large number of screened people might imply a potential public health or societal risk.

The population risk has the potential to be significant".

The most likely risk from the airport scanners is a common type of skin cancer called basal cell carcinoma, according to Dr Brenner.

The cancer is usually curable and often occurs in the head and neck of people aged between 50 and 70.

He points out it would be difficult to hide a weapon on the head or neck so proposes missing out that part of the body from the scanning process.

"If there are increases in cancers as a result of irradiation of children, they would most likely appear some decades in the future. It would be prudent not to scan the head and neck," he added.

He recently aired his concerns to the Congressional Biomedical Caucus in the US - members of Congress who meet to exchange ideas on medical research.

Dr Brenner urged them to look at his concerns but said it was important to balance any health issues against passengers` safety when flying.

He said, "There really is no other technology around where we`re planning to X-ray such an enormous number of individuals. It`s really unprecedented in the radiation world".

PTI