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Transportation Nation

Coffee, Tea or Cancer? Almost Half of Americans Oppose X-Ray Body Scanners

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Ontario International Airport, California. (photo by richmanwisco via flickr)

(by Michael Grabell, ProPublica) Even if X-ray body scanners would prevent terrorists from smuggling explosives onto planes, nearly half of Americans still oppose using them because they could cause a few people to eventually develop cancer, according to a new Harris Interactive poll conducted online for ProPublica.

Slightly more than third of Americans supported using the scanners, while almost a fifth were unsure.

The Transportation Security Administration plans to install body scanners, which can detect explosives and other objects hidden under clothing, at nearly every airport security lane in the country by the end of 2014. It's the biggest change to airport security since metal detectors were introduced more than 35 years ago.

The scanners have long faced vocal opposition. Privacy advocates have decried them as a "virtual strip search" because the raw images show genitalia, breasts and buttocks – a concern the TSA addressed by requiring software that makes the images less graphic. But in addition to privacy objections, scientists and some lawmakers oppose one type of scanner because it uses X-rays, which damage DNA and could potentially lead to a few additional cancer cases among the 100 million travelers who fly every year. They say an alternative technology, which uses radio frequency waves, is safer.

Some travelers like Kathy Blomker, a breast cancer survivor from Madison, Wis., have decided to forgo the machines altogether and opt for a physical pat-down instead. "I've had so much radiation that I don't want to subject myself to radiation that I can avoid," she said. "I decided I'm just not ever going to go through one of those machines again. It's just too risky."

After ProPublica published an investigation, reported in conjunction with PBS NewsHour, showing that the X-ray scanners had evaded rigorous safety evaluations, the head of the TSA told Senator Susan Collins that his agency would conduct a new independent safety study. He subsequently backed off that promise, prompting the senator to write the TSA pressing the agency to go ahead with the study and asking it to post larger signs alerting pregnant women that they have the option to have a physical pat-down instead of going through the X-ray scanners.

The TSA has repeatedly touted a series of polls showing strong public support for the scanners. But those polls and surveys – conducted by Gallup, The Wall Street Journal and various travel sites – largely dealt with the privacy issue.

Only one of those polls – by CBS News – asked specifically about X-ray body scanners, finding that 81 percent of Americans thought that such X-ray scanners should be used in airports. But that poll – like all the others – did not mention the risk of cancer.

When confronted with the cancer-terrorism trade-off, however, Americans took a much more negative view of the scanners.

Harris Interactive surveyed 2,198 Americans between Dec. 2 and Dec. 6. (Full survey methodology can be found here.) The international polling firm asked, "If a security scanner existed which would significantly help in preventing terrorists from boarding a plane with powder, plastic, or liquid explosives, do you think the TSA should still use it even if it could cause perhaps six of the 100 million passengers who fly each year to eventually develop cancer"

Forty-six percent said the TSA shouldn't use it, 36 percent said it should, and 18 percent weren't sure.

Asked to comment, TSA spokesman Michael McCarthy said in a statement that the X-Ray scanners are "well within national standards."

"TSA’s top priority is the safety of the traveling public and the use of advanced imaging technology is critical to the detection of both metallic and non-metallic threats," he said. "All results from independent evaluations confirm that these machines are safe for all passengers."

The number of potential cancer cases used in the poll comes from a peer-reviewed research paper written by a radiology and epidemiology professor at the University of California, San Francisco, and posted on the TSA's website.

The professor, Rebecca Smith-Bindman, concluded that 'there is no significant threat of radiation from the scans.' But she estimated that among the 750 million security checks of 100 million airline passengers per year, six cancers could result from the X-ray scans. She cautioned that the increase was small considering that the same 100 million people would develop 40 million cancers over the course of their lifetimes.

Another study by David Brenner, director of Columbia University's Center for Radiological Research, estimated that as airlines approach a billion boardings per year in the United States, 100 additional cancers per year could result from the scanners.

The TSA uses two types of body scanners to screen travelers for nonmetallic explosives. In the X-ray machine, known as a backscatter, a passenger stands between two large blue boxes and is scanned with an extremely low level of ionizing radiation, a form of energy which strips electrons from atoms and can damage DNA, leading to cancer. In the millimeter-wave machine, a passenger stands inside a round glass booth and is scanned with low-energy electromagnetic waves which don't strip electrons from atoms and have not been linked to cancer.

There is a great deal of uncertainty when performing cancer risk assessments from the very low levels of radiation that the backscatters emit. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration put the risk of a fatal cancer from the machines at one in 400 million. The U.K. Health Protection Agency has put it at one in 166 million.

Some experts say such estimates of population risk create a distorted picture of the danger because humans are constantly exposed to background radiation and already accept risks that increase exposure, such as flying on a plane at cruising altitude.

In the authoritative study on the health risks of low levels of radiation, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the risk of cancer increases with radiation exposure and that there is no level of radiation at which the risk is zero.

Given that risk, Brenner and some in Congress have argued that the TSA should forgo in the X-ray scanners in favor of the millimeter-wave machine.

European officials have gone so far as to prohibit the X-ray body scanners, leaving the millimeter-wave scanner as the only option. But some countries, including Germany, have reported a high rate of false alarms with the millimeter-wave machines.

The TSA has said that keeping two technologies in play creates competition, encouraging the manufacturers of both technologies to improve the detection capabilities, efficiency and cost of the scanners.

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Transportation Nation

TN MOVING STORIES: Republicans Grill LaHood About High-Speed Rail, MTA Testfies about Winter Storm Readiness

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Top stories on TN:

NY Governor Cuomo's deal on the MTA's payroll tax won't cut its budget--yet. (Link)
Following a drunk driving arrest last weekend, FAA head Randy Babbitt resigns. (Link)
HOT lanes deal for I-95 in Northern VA was announced. (Link)
A new poll says Californians would vote to kill high-speed rail funding. (Link)

A NYC bus stuck in the aftermath of the 12/26/10 blizzard (photo by John Chevier via Flickr)

House Republicans "treated Ray LaHood’s high-speed rail program like a piñata" at yesterday's hearing. (Politico/MT)

The prime minister of Somalia is back on the job in New York's Department of Transportation. (New York Times)

NYC transit officials told City Council they forgot about a stranded subway train during last year's blizzard. (New York Times)

The new head of New York's MTA is facing his first big labor relations test. (Gotham Gazette)

Are parking maximums as bad for New York City as real estate developers say they are? (Atlantic Cities)

More than half of Americans oppose body scanners because of cancer fears. (ProPublica)

Scottish politicians said they'd pay for high-speed rail if Parliament builds a network north of Birmingham. (Guardian)

Princeton's plan to add an arts and transit hub to the neighborhood moved one step closer to reality. (NJ.com)

More than 110 House members from both sides of the aisle sent a letter to the White House supporting a six-year transportation bill. (New York Times)

A Swedish group is offering insurance for fare beaters. (Atlantic Cities)

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Transportation Nation

TN MOVING STORIES: Highway Bill Vote This Week, E.U. Bans Airport Body Scanners, Detroit's Buses Get an 'F'

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Top stories on TN:

Where -- and when -- did transit over the Tappan Zee Bridge go? (Link)

The New York MTA and the Transit Workers Union opened contract negotiations. (Link)

As police cleared Zuccotti Park, bicyclists helped reinforce Occupy Wall Street protesters. (Link)

The Capitol (photo by Skibum 415 via Flickr)

The House is almost ready to vote on a highway bill. (The Hill)

And: lawmakers say the FAA bill will be ready to go by the end of the month. (Politico)

There are more vehicles on the roads in the DC area -- but more of them are passenger cars, not SUVs. (Washington Post)

One road in London is doing away with curbs and sidewalks in an effort to be more pedestrian-friendly. (Good)

Montreal unveiled a $16.8 billion plan to increase transit ridership, but funding it is going to be a problem. (Montreal Gazette)

Back in the day, new MTA head Joe Lhota wanted City Hall to control the city's transit system. (New York Times)

The Illinois state legislature signed off on Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s call for speed cameras near schools and parks. (WBEZ)

A transit advocacy group says half of Detroit's buses are either late or don't arrive at all. (Detroit Free Press)

WNYC looks at the economic benefits of hydrofracking.

The Canadian government ruled out federal funding for a high-speed rail line between Windsor and Quebec. (The National Post)

The European Union banned U.S.-style body scanner machines in European airports. (ProPublica)

A bike room grows in lower Manhattan.  (New York Times)

How many riders must high-speed rail attract to offset the construction emissions? (Atlantic Cities)

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Transportation Nation

TN MOVING STORIES: LA Residents Want Transit Prioritized; Shorter Station Names Coming to DC Metro; NYC "Taxi Summit" Happening Today

Friday, November 04, 2011

Top stories on TN:

The Senate blocked a politically-charged $60 billion infrastructure bill Thursday; the GOP countered. (Link)

Broken escalators haunt DC's Metro. (Link)

Republicans are divided over the end of the Mexican trucking ban. (Link)

DC is debating whether to make it easier for cyclists to sue drivers. (Link)

Metro entrance in LA (photo by JoeInSouthernCA via Flickr)

A new poll says most L.A. residents want the state to prioritize transit, not roads. (Los Angeles Times)

The TSA will conduct a new study on the safety of X-ray body scanners. (Pro Publica)

Disabled New Yorkers want more accessible taxis. (WNYC)

And: the city's "Taxi Summit" -- an attempt to reach a deal on outer-borough street hail legislation -- is happening today. (Wall Street Journal)

The New York City Council voted in favor of residential parking permits, but Albany will have the final say. (WNYC)

Four years into its 10-year bicycle master plan, Seattle wants to update it. (Seattle Times)

Maryland's commuter rail is getting new multi-level cars. (Washington Post)

A bus drivers' protest has crippled bus service in Detroit this morning. (Detroit Free Press)

DC unveiled its list of shorter names for Metro stations. (Greater Greater Washington)

Is there a class divide in how pets travel on planes? (Good)

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Transportation Nation

TN Moving Stories: Amtrak Ridership Continues to Grow, SF Eyes Taxi Rate Hike, and LaHood Attends Emanuel Inauguration

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

City Limits takes a long look at Iris Weinshall, former NYC transportation commissioner, bike lane opponent, and wife of Senator Schumer.

Amtrak posted its biggest April ridership numbers in its history. (AltTransport)

San Francisco may raise taxi cab rates "to heights unseen in any other part of the nation." (AP via Sacramento Bee)

Some scientists are casting doubt on the radiation dose delivered by the TSA's body scanners. (ProPublica)

Ray LaHood attended Rahm Emanuel's inauguration; says Chicago's new mayor is sending a team to DC to talk transportation priorities. (AP via Chicago Tribune)

The Hill reports that the Senate is set to vote today on the Democrats' bill that would cut the tax breaks received by the big five oil companies.

A Manhattan community board gets behind the idea of a car-free Central Park. (DNA Info)

Two towns that protested the effects of the widening of the New Jersey Turnpike have begun spending the millions awarded them for the loss of forested land. (The Times of Trenton)

Ottawa's bike share program begins this week. (Ottawa Citizen)

Pedicabs in New York must now obey motor vehicle law. (Wall Street Journal)

A move is afoot to get London to adopt a cycle map based on the iconic Tube map. (Fast Company)

Simon Parker's London cycle map

Follow Transportation Nation on Twitter.

In case you missed it on Transportation Nation:

-- Fernando Ferrer named to NY MTA board (link)

-- baby born on Verrazano Bridge (link)

-- a new report says essential urban infrastructure is disintegrating rapidly (link)


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Transportation Nation

TN Moving Stories: LA Subway Possibilities Unveiled, and Atlanta Takes Baby Steps To Coordinate Regional Transit

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Possible routes for LA's Westside subway extension to be unveiled today, along with details of light rail connector. (Los Angeles Times)

Vote "O" for potholes: seven Bay Area counties will vote on whether to add fees to vehicle registration to pay for road repair (San Jose Mercury News)

MBTA's "Charlie cards" will start working today on buses in Boston's western suburbs. (Boston Globe)

Body scanning machines debut at Newark Liberty International Airport today. (Star Ledger)

A "motley, uncomfortable alliance" of Metro Atlanta officials met to talk about regional transportation needs. The meeting was described as "uneasy."  (Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

The Takeaway unpacks the political motivation behind the Obama Administration's high speed rail grants.

New Jersey is moving to privatize toll collection on the Garden State Parkway and NJ Turnpike. (Philadelphia Inquirer)

World Series tweet of the day: "The BART announcer keeps on teasing Texas. It's nice to see this city rally behind something besides an iPhone every now and then."

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