2265 North Clybourn Avenue    Chicago, IL 60614    P: 773.296.6700     F: 773.296.1131

Can You Get Fried By An Airport Scanner?

Ever since 2009, when that guy smuggled plastic explosives in his Jockey shorts and tried to blow up a plane on its way to Detroit, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has been pushing for full-body scanners at all airports.

Having recently been groped (sorry, “patted down”) before flying out of Chicago and then full-body scanned before flying home, I was curious about the risks of this additional radiation. A recent article in Archives of Internal Medicine helped put it into (mildly guarded) perspective. I say “guarded” because even experts in the field ultimately can only make educated guesses.

Using a technique called backscatter radiation, the scanners offer the person viewing the images extremely detailed information. On screen you appear in your birthday suit, so if like me you’ve got a knapsack full of body-image neuroses, you might prefer being patted down. (Really, if you want to know my circumcision status, I’d prefer you just ask.)

To reassure me that some yahoo isn’t chuckling about my love handles, they’ve installed a software-based face scrambler (which could probably be disabled by any 14-year-old) and allegedly there’s also no way to store or transmit the images. Allegedly, of course, because the feds admitted they actually were storing the images (though apparently not posting them on Facebook). Now they promise no more of this, saying they’re keeping tabs on it.

The security person viewing the image is offsite, so you’re spared the smirk, guffaw, or, for the fortunate few, thumbs up.

How the scanner works and the risks of going through one
The scanning device you’ve been passing through, arms in the air, thumbs pointing at each other, uses backscatter technology, which works in a kind of two-step process.

First, you receive a very tiny dose of the same x-ray radiation you’d get in any medical imaging procedure, but the dose is so low that it’s absorbed only by your skin (rather than passing through your body and onto a piece of film like a regular x ray). Next, the scanning device collects an image of the radiation reflected off your body–the “backscatter.”

Before you start fretting about your precious skin being deep-fried, you need to have a sense of how small the radiation exposure really is:

  • During most flights themselves, because you’re up there at 35,000 feet and much closer to the sun, you receive radiation from the sun that passes right through the plane. The amount is still quite small and harmless (frequent flyers have no increased cancer risk).
  • The radiation from the scanner equals what you’d receive in about two minutes of flying.
  • 50 airport scans gets you radiation equal to that of one dental x-ray.
  • 1000 airport scans equal a chest x-ray.
  • 4000 airport scans equal a mammogram.
  • 200,000 airport scans equal a CT scan of your abdomen.

Because radiation from an airport scanner concentrates in the skin, never reaching internal organs, the only cancer that could theoretically occur if you literally lived in a scanner would be skin cancer.

A team of statisticians came up with the following:

  • We know there are 750 million plane boardings every year, taken by 100 million passengers. During the entire lifetime of these 100 million people, 40 million of them will develop cancer. Only six out of these 40 million cancers might theoretically be attributed to airport scanners, and these would be skin cancers rather than internal ones.
  • Among the one million frequent flyers who take ten or more flights per year, 400,000 will develop cancer sometime in their lives. Of these 400,000, just four cancers (again, skin) might be attributable to backscatter radiation.

In medicine, we often use the phrase “risk-benefit” in regard to medical decisions involving everything from diagnostic tests to prescription drugs and surgical procedures. For example, there’s a greater risk in prescribing an antibiotic for a common cold than any benefit you could ever receive from it (antibiotics have no affect on cold viruses or any other viruses).

Given the extraordinarily tiny radiation exposure from an airport scanning device, the risk-benefit ratio of going through one is good, provided it actually does improve national security and safety.

Of course you can always opt for the pat-down, and I notice quite a few people prefer it. However, if you’re getting a pat-down to avoid radiation from the scanner, don’t bother. After liftoff you’ll be five miles closer to the sun and out from under any protective cloud cover, receiving a dose of radiation 150 times that of the scanner you chose to avoid.

All in all, you could also consider the train.

Be well,

David Edelberg, MD

Leave a Comment


  1. Addie says:

    Bill Maher said if they’d been carrying bomb components in their hair, we’d all have to shave our heads to get on a flight.

  2. Thom Goetz says:

    I appreciated this report very much.

  3. somara says:

    best sense of humor ever! thanks for the info along with the chuckle.

  4. John Cox says:

    Sitting in my hotel in Prague, I laughed out loud when I read this. I might as well have been sitting in Dr. E’s examining room, hearing his reassuring banter.

  5. Margo says:

    All this is probably true, if the equipment is properly calibrated to only use the amount of radiation needed for the image.
    However, given the (at least several) cases of dangerous radiation over-exposure in hospitals from equipment that was either not being maintained properly, or just plain “human error” in determining the dosage, how can we be assured that **only** the minuscule amount described is what we are being exposed to in the scanner?

  6. S. M. says:

    Thanks for this informative report on the scanners. I disagree with your risk-benefit analysis, however. Why take on added radiation exposure when there is an alternative available that does not give any exposure or risk at all (aside from the embaressment of being groped!)? After all, radiation exposure is cumulative over one’s lifetime.

Join our Newsletter

Get health recommendations, delicious and time-saving recipes, medical news, supplement reviews, birthday discounts, and more!

BIRTHDAY

Health Tips

Dr. Edelberg’s Health Tips contain concise bits of advice, medical news, nutritional supplement and pharmaceutical updates, and stress relief ideas. With every Health Tip, you’ll also receive an easy, delicious, and healthful recipe.

When you sign up to receive Health Tips, you can look forward to Dr. Edelberg’s smart and very current observations arriving in your in-box weekly. They’re packed with helpful information and are often slightly irreverent. One of the most common responses to the tips is “I wish my doctor talked to me like this!”

Quick Connect

Get One Click Access to our

patient-portal

The Knowledge Base

Patient education is an integral part of our practice. Here you will find a comprehensive collection of staff articles, descriptions of therapies and nutritional supplements, information addressing your health concerns, and the latest research on nutritional supplements and alternative therapies.

Join our Newsletter

Get health recommendations, recipes, medical news, supplement reviews, birthday discounts, and more!

Upcoming Workshops


**Winter Solstice Celebration: An evening of Acupuncture and Shamanic Healing
Tuesday, December 17, 5:45–7:30pm
Hosted by Katie Oberlin, HTCP and Mari Stecker, LAc

Course Fee: $75.00

Take a break from the hustle and bustle of the holiday season to enter the stillpoint of the Winter Solstice, reflect on the lessons of 2019, and set intentions for the new year. This will be an evening of individual and group healing, ceremony, and celebration. More →

Recent Health Tips

  • Infertility Issues? Start With The Guy

    I’ve lost track of the number of couples we treat at WholeHealth Chicago who are involved in one of the hormone injection/surgical procedure stops on the conveyor belt of infertility centers. Currently, it’s estimated that 15 to 20 percent of couples are struggling with infertility, half of them due to male factors. The infertility docs are nice enough and certainly well-meaning, but I note a Read More

  • Issues with Endocrinologists: Thyroid Approaches and Big Pharma

    My beefs with endocrinologists pretty much center on how they manage thyroid gland concerns, though they rarely win prizes for managing adrenal issues either. I don’t know any endocrinologists personally and rarely refer my patients to them. Occasionally, a patient with newly diagnosed hypothyroidism (low thyroid) will want to confirm the diagnosis with an endocrinologist. I suggest she prepare for a scolding if she’s taking Read More

  • Six Beefs With Rheumatologists

    If you find yourself in the waiting room of a rheumatologist, you’re likely there because your joints hurt and have been hurting, often for years. You’ve been getting by on aspirin or Advil for the pain, but with things worsening your primary care doctor suggests you should see a joint specialist, a rheumatologist. And because there’s a shortage of physicians in this specialty, your appointment Read More

Join our Discount Program!

Member benefits include 10% off all your purchases. Low, one-time membership fee of $25 ($35 for family).

MORE INFORMATION