Ionizing Radiation and Dosimeters for TSOs

I promise I will even out all this TSA stuff somehow. There will be cookies. And cartoons. And Jake being cute.

But whenever I read about the TSA I feel frustrated and sad and self-righteous and so I do what most anybody with a computer does when they feel that way: blog.

To review: I object to the TSA’s “enhanced patdown,” which it introduced last October as the standard alternative to the body-scanner (and as the secondary screening method when the primary screening method triggers an alarm.) I object to it because I do not want my private parts seen by a stranger, and I do not want my private parts touched by a stranger. I just don’t. I don’t have a past trauma. It just creeps me out. And I’ve learned over and over that if my guts tell me to do one thing and I force myself to do another then it feels godawful. I’d rather get beat with a stick. If the TSA had an “enhanced beat with a stick” alternative, I’d choose it. But they don’t.

Do patdowns make us safer? What do I suggest instead? Why do I think I’m so damn much smarter than the DHS? I’m prepared to argue “no,” “privatization” and “things just got out of whack because of bad incentives,” and I will do that another time when I’ve done some more reading.

So I was slow to get on the team of those who object to the scanners for health reasons. One — to do so makes it sound like I’d be OK with the scanners if they didn’t have radiation (and the millimeter wave scanners indeed make nakedy pictures without radiation). Two — I didn’t *really* buy that the amount of radiation given off by the machines was harmful, even to the TSOs who have to stand next to the boxes all day. It just felt a little tin-foil-hat to accuse the federal government of filling airports with radiation deathboxes. And I don’t know how much radiation it takes to make a naked picture. I’ve never done it myself.

But recent documents released to EPIC under the Freedom of Information Act raise my eyebrows.

January 6, 2011 EPIC files suit: “EPIC has filed a lawsuit to suspend the deployment of body scanners at US airports, pending an independent review… EPIC asserts that the federal agency’s controversial program violates the Administrative Procedures Act, the Privacy Act, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Video Voyeurism Prevention Act, and the Fourth Amendment. The District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals will hear oral argument in the case on March 10, 2011.”

June 24, 2011 EPIC makes public documents that were released to them under the Freedom of Information Act.

These include :

1) May 2010 email from a TSO union reporting an “alarmingly high number of cancer-afflicted TSOs” working at Boston’s Logan airport.

According to this email AND to the Congressional testimony linked below, before the DHS took over airport checkpoints, checkpoint staff wore dosimeters as a caution around the X-ray machines used to examine luggage. Now some staff work around the same X-ray machines PLUS backscatter machines with ionizing radiation, and they have been FORBIDDEN to wear dosimeters altogether:

Congressional testimony of AFGE, AFL-CIO: “TSOs’ concern stemmed from the fact that some of them had worked for the private sector security firms who were doing those jobs before they were federalized in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. While they were in the private sector companies, the security officers were provided with dosimeters—devices used to measure the employees exposure to radiation. Dosimetry is used to monitor the exposures of workers to ensure that they are not exposed at harmful levels…

Individual TSOs and AFGE as their representative have asked about a dosimetry program at TSA, but have been denied the dosimeters. TSA’s position is that the agency has done the necessary testing and is not required by any applicable standards to issue dosimeters to its employees…

In order to address our members’ concerns, AFGE has offered to conduct an independent study of radiation emissions and has identified a research team to conduct it. We explored the possibility with TSA, and our offer was declined.

AFGE has also been willing to fund the purchase of dosimeters for TSOs since TSA refused to provide them. When they asked if they could wear their own dosimeters, TSOs were told by TSA management that they would not be allowed to wear dosimeters not issued by TSA.

TSOs have continued to request dosimeters over the years that TSA has been in existence, yet TSA has not changed its position.”

If there is indeed an elevated cancer rate among Logan employees, the TSA has not responded to it in any way, and forbidden TSOs to respond to it themselves. It is difficult to understand why.

2) NIST calls Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano’s USA Today claim that they tested the machines for safety a “mischaracterization of their work.”

NIST explains they did not test the machines for safety, but only “measured the dose of a single machine and compared it against the standard.”

This National Institute on Standards and Technology report demonstrates NIST did not report the machines were safe. They actually recommended a) four wing shields and b) not allowing a single employee to spend more than a certain amount of time near the machines. The specific time limit they recommended was redacted.

What Napolitano said: “They have been independently evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, who have all affirmed their safety.”

3) Speaking of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, they ALSO recommended “additional action” — specifically, beam stops to control radiation spill, which was the same finding as NIST.

The DHS did not implement their recommendations. To claim Johns Hopkins “affirmed their safety” is audacious.


4) This is the 2006 report from the FDA — the third organization cited by Napolitano. The FDA finds that radiation from the backscatter devices is within acceptable limits, and that someone standing adjacent to a scanner is 0.00011 mRem per scan. They used an ANSI standard of 0.25 mRem/h and 100 mRem/year. Assuming two scans a minute, and two hours a day worked directly next to a machine, a TSO would be exposed to 6.6 mRem/year, which is low.

(Context: according to the DOE, the average American is exposed to 360 mrem every year: “About 300 mrem comes from natural sources, and the other 60 mrem from man-made sources. To put this in perspective, the average dose from a chest X-ray is about 10 mrem, and we get about 3 mrem when we make a cross country flight.”)

So there’s that.


Draws. Sweats. Eats too much sugar-free candy.

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2 Responses

  1. tahrey says:

    Uh… so… if something goes wrong in the machine, with the shielding, the x-ray generator, the steering system etc, that isn’t obvious on the screen or picked up by internal safeties, and it starts squirting more dangerous levels of radiation around… What’s their failsafe, their backup method of detecting this? Besides ensuring that individual overall dosage remains within acceptable limits, dosimeters are sort of the last line of defence in this realm. 2 or 3 of your employees start posting unusually high numbers, then there’s probably something you need to investigate.

    And if the levels really are within safe limits, that surely means they’ve properly checked it all in a real working situation and should be happy to post up the numbers, right? Heck, they could fabricate them and we’d probably never know, so why so reticent to even do THAT? Strange.

    • Tory says:

      Your points: they are highly valid.

      I also feel the need to point out that, according to the FDA radiation emission tests, their safety standard is 100 millirem per year, which is the equivalent of ten chest X-rays.

      Now, they found the scanners to be comfortably within that range, but SHEESH! Ten chest X-rays a year? Do the TSOs know that’s the bar they’re under? Is that what they signed up for? Are they being insured appropriate to their exposure?

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