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Will TSA Screenings Make Holiday Travel a Nightmare?

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Guest blogger Kate Tuttle: It's not enough this year to stress out about how many diapers to pack, or what snacks the little ones will reliably eat, or whether or not to download multiple episodes of "Yo Gabba Gabba." For those of us flying for the holidays this year, the new TSA security screenings -- and the high level of attention they're getting in the media and online -- have added a new thing to worry about. Here's what you need to know.

TSA Screening
What's "Advanced Imaging Technology"?
Hundreds of airports this year have added what they call "advanced imaging technology," which includes two new types of screening machines, known as millimeter wave (which operates on microwave technology) and backscatter (which uses radiation, such as in an X-ray). If you scroll down a bit on this page from the TSA, you can see what each of these machines looks like. That's important, because while some travelers are expressing concern over either machine's use due to the fact that body parts can be seen while travelers pass through them (though these images are viewed by a TSA employee in another room), others are more worried about the potential health effects of the backscatter machine only. (The TSA claims that both machines are safe; so far, nobody has challenged that claim regarding the millimeter wave.)

Do I Have an Alternative?
Yes, but it's one that many travelers find equally upsetting, if not more so. As detailed by a recent "gotcha" video and a post by a mommy blogger, what the TSA calls its "enhanced pat-down" is, in many minds, akin to sexual assault. The new screening guidelines call for TSA agents to touch travelers in many very personal body parts. Many parents especially worry about subjecting their children to such an invasive, frightening procedure. (Videos popped up all over YouTube purporting to show just that, though at least one has been acknowledged to have nothing to do with the new rules.) Many parents were relieved when the TSA issued a new statement on Tuesday, November 16, to say that they would perform a modified, toned-down pat-down for kids under 12. So, either you get scanned by a full-body scanner, which may violate your privacy and have health implications, or you get patted down in a manner that you may find upsetting? Yes, that's pretty much your choice if you want to fly these days.

Am I Alone in Finding This Upsetting?
Not at all. It's been the biggest story all over the Internet in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, generating a growing grassroots resistance movement. Hating the TSA has long been a nonpartisan issue, and the reaction to the new TSA rules has brought together hardcore Libertarians and left-leaning privacy advocates. It's the rare topic on which the ACLU and some of the more vociferous right-wing bloggers agree. Some have called for a National Opt-Out Day on Wednesday, November 24. If you're flying that day (and it seems half the country will be), you should get to the airport as early as humanly possible, because the security lines will be brutal.

next: 4 Ways to Connect Despite Holiday Stress
27 comments so far | Post a comment now
Gern Blanston November 19, 2010, 1:33 PM

Millimeter wave radiation and radio frequency radiation in general is not inherently carcinogenic (unlike X-rays and ultraviolet radiation), but scientific studies show exposure to lower frequencies of microwaves have demonstrated an increased risk of cancer and faster rates of tumor progression. (Look up ‘millimeter wave scan’ on Wikipedia for the study cite.)

The scanners have been tested for only one thing: Whether the amount of radiation meets American National Standards Institute guidelines. However, there are no large scale studies of this type of technology used on such a large number of people. Nobody has studied, for example, pregnant women or people predisposed to the kind of cell mutation that leads to skin cancer.

Further, The New York Times found in September that the committee evaluating the scanners was comprised of the people who make them and representatives from the TSA. (The article, entitled “Are Scanners Worth the Risk”, is easily Googlable.)

The TSA compares millimeter wave scanners to cell phones. Wavelengths of cellphone transmissions are approximately 100x the size of these waves. This body scanner’s electromagnetic characteristics are closer to a microwave oven than a cell phone. Depending upon your body composition and clothing, you may literally be cooking yourself over time by going through these machines.

millimeter November 19, 2010, 1:57 PM

Millimeter machines are also of concern. They can unzip DNA and they have been shown to accelerate cancer.

CreoleInDC November 19, 2010, 5:18 PM

If you don’t want to be scanned the solution is simple…don’t fly.

Lilith November 20, 2010, 8:44 AM

CreoleInDC , if I want to visit relatives across the pond, what shall I do? Swim?

Christina November 20, 2010, 12:11 PM

Unless Canada is implementing these same idiotic methods, we plan to drive from the US to Canada and fly to our various international destinations from there.

Jilly November 22, 2010, 6:37 AM

How often are you flying? Considering the other things we do, day in and day out, to our bodies(SMOKING for one)…a once or twice a year scan seems negligable. As for the embarrassment..please the person in a private room sees a blurred outline of things….I dare say my Gynocologist has quite the view by comparison! They are just trying to keep us safe, it is not some conspiracy to see us all nude(most of us are just not that appealling!!HA!)
Everyday there is a new “threat” to our everyday life, I am so over it…most of these things are just not worth it!

Carrie November 22, 2010, 1:15 PM

The ability to get on an airplane is not a god given right or a freedom. Air travel is a business that is monitored by the government. Just like driving a car, the government puts laws, restrictions, and safety/security enforcments in place. Basically, if you don’t like it don’t fly. Yes, you may miss out on seeing people or places unreachable by place, but, hey, that’s your choice.

But when I put my children on a plane, I want to make sure that the airplane is safe. If that means running them thru a microwave scanner along with all the other travelers, then so be it. Better microwave waves than a bomb, or other weapon.

Anonymous November 22, 2010, 2:19 PM

Jilly I get what you are saying but what about the business traveler like my husband who flys several times a week or month. How much radiation is too much? How much is ok? What do we really know about this type of technology? How many “naked pictures” does he have to endure?

jonaD November 23, 2010, 5:54 AM

Ok, here’s a different take. I see the entire procedure as invasive and an infraction on my privacy. The accumulated REMS are not an issue unless you fly all the time, so radiation issues do not bother me much, but the privacy issues do. Thing is, the millimeter wave technology is converted to a visual inspection tool where inspectors look at you and figure out whether you are a suspect. I have a vast experience in many technologies, including machine vision. It is my assessment that the entire process currently being done in this manner, can be done by artificially intelligent machine vision systems that are both cost effective and available. THEY would flag suspicious circumstances for human inspectors to then step in on. THAT would mitigate much of my resistance.

Paul November 24, 2010, 8:20 AM

Millimeter wave radiation has never been shown to cause cancer. In animal studies, chronic exposure to it has in a few cases been linked to accelerated progression of existing cancers, but at the same rate as other stressers such as prolonged confinement. It has never been linked to causing cancer, unless you could people who got severe burns from accidental acute microwave overexposure. Current guidelines, in an abundance of precaution, suggest that young children and pregnant women get a pat down instead.

oriermaLace December 1, 2010, 8:59 AM

witchblade hardcore

jonn2 December 11, 2010, 11:40 PM


jonn1 December 12, 2010, 12:34 AM


jonn2 December 12, 2010, 1:27 AM


jonn3 December 12, 2010, 2:19 AM


Jonahex December 15, 2010, 5:22 PM

I agree with the post above and I will get more information from google.

jonn3 January 2, 2011, 11:41 PM


jonn3 January 3, 2011, 12:41 AM


jonn2 January 3, 2011, 1:41 AM


jonn2 January 3, 2011, 2:40 AM


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