(Michael Grabell ProPublica) Following months of congressional pressure, the Transportation Security Administration has agreed to contract with the National Academy of Sciences to study the health effects of the agency's X-ray body scanners. But it is unclear if the academy will conduct its own tests of the scanners or merely review previous studies.
The machines, known as backscatters, were installed in airports nationwide after the failed underwear bombing on Christmas Day 2009 to screen passengers for explosives and other nonmetallic weapons. But they have been criticized by some prominent scientists because they expose the public to a small amount of ionizing radiation, a form of energy that can cause cancer.
The scanners were the subject of a 2011 ProPublica series, which found that the TSA had glossed over the small cancer risk posed by even low doses of radiation. The stories also showed that the United States was almost alone in the world in X-raying passengers and that the Food and Drug Administration had gone against its own advisory panel, which recommended the agency set a federal safety standard for security X-rays.
The TSA maintains that the backscatters are safe and that they emit a low dose of X-rays equivalent to the radiation a passenger would receive in two minutes of flying at typical cruising altitude.
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the top Republican on the Senate homeland security committee, introduced a bill mandating such a test earlier this year.
"I am pleased that at long last the Transportation Security Administration has heeded my call to commission an independent examination into the possible health risks travelers and TSA employees may face during airport screenings," she said in a statement Monday night.
According to a brief contract notice posted on a government procurement website, the National Academy of Sciences will convene a committee to review previous studies to determine if the dose from the scanners complies with existing health and safety standards and to evaluate the TSA's methods for testing and maintaining the machines.
Collins' office said the language in the contract notice wasn't final and that the study would be consistent with the senator's calls for an independent investigation. TSA spokesman David Castelveter added, "Administrator [John] Pistole has made a commitment to conduct the study and TSA is following through on that commitment."
Still, it's unclear how much the study that the TSA is proposing will add to what's known about the machines, mainly because it's not known if the National Academy of Sciences will conduct new tests or confine itself to examining previous studies. In the past, TSA has contracted with the Food and Drug Administration, the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and the Army Public Health Command to test the scanners. All three studies found the radiation was in line with a voluntary standard set by an industry panel that included FDA scientists.
A 2012 study by the Department of Homeland Security's independent watchdog supported the findings but based its report on previous tests performed by the TSA and the other groups.
This fall, the TSA began replacing the X-ray body scanners with millimeter-wave machines 2013 a technology radiation experts consider safer 2013 at most of its biggest airports. The TSA said the move was done to speed up lines and that the X-ray scanners would eventually be redeployed at smaller airports.
Europe has prohibited the X-ray scanners while Israel, which is influential in the security world, has recently begun testing them.
The TSA study will not address privacy, cultural or legal concerns that have been raised by the scans, the contract notice said.
(Todd Zwillich -- Washington, D.C.) House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Rep. John Mica (R-Fl.) took a swing at the Obama Administration Friday for refusing to privatize security screening at more U.S. airports.
Mica released a lengthy report from his committee's investigators concluding that taxpayers could save $1 billion per year if 35 of the largest airports moved to private screening. That's a direct response to a January decision by Transportation Security Administration head John Pistole to reject privatization bids from five airports. Pistole also said he wouldn't expand the program further since privatized screening wasn't saving taxpayers any money.
The decision rankled Mica, who since the start of the year has railed on the TSA to slim down. "TSA has become a bloated bureaucracy that is too focused on managing its personnel and protecting its turf," he said. "This agency must get out of the human resources business."
Airports were legally allowed to opt out of TSA screening beginning in 2003. But private security contractors that took over had to meet federal screening and oversight standards in order to replace TSA screeners. Today 16 airports have opted for private security contractors. But Pistole got Mica's back up in January when he denied applications from five more. Republicans accused Pistole and Homeland Security officials of bowing to union pressure to suspend the program.
Officials have denied that union pressure was the reason, saying it is cost projections and security concerns that are keeping them from expanding the privatization program.
Friday's report compares screening costs at LAX, which uses TSA screeners, with the cost of private screening at San Francisco's SFO airport. It found that LAX screeners cost an average of $41,208 per year compared with $39,021 at SFO. Perhaps more to the point, it concludes that private screening at SFO costs $2.42 per passenger versus $4.22 per passenger at LAX.
"If we applied those findings to the nation's top 35 airports, we could save over $1 billion over five years," Mica told reporters at press conference on Capitol Hill Friday.
TSA hit back, saying via a spokesperson that it was "unclear" how they did their math on cost estimates. The agency's own estimates say private screening is more expensive. Most recently a GAO report in March of this year pegged private screening as 3 percent more expensive than government-run security.
TSA spokesperson Nicholas Kimball said security was a bigger factor than cost in Pistole's decision to back off private screening at airports.
"While cost is an important factor...Administrator Pistole’s primary consideration is security," Kimball wrote to Transportation Nation in an email. "It is critical that TSA retains its ability to operate as a flexible nationwide security network. TSA’s capacity to push out intelligence information to our frontline workforce and quickly change procedures based on threat and intelligence is paramount to effective security. Further expansion of privatized screening will increase the complexity of this process," he wrote.
Kimball added that the agency believes private and TSA screeners provide "comparable" security.
That's not good enough for Mica. He said he intends to try and force TSA's hand on the issue. Part of his strategy was on display this week on the House floor. Mica narrowly succeeded in passing an amendment on a Homeland Security spending bill limiting by law the amount of money TSA can spend for screener personnel, salaries and benefits.