Anti-terrorism measures set to impact on cancer patients

Anyone who flies will know that anti-terrorism checks can take up more time than the flight itself. No-one would grudge spending this time, if it is for our safety – BUT – the very equipment that is about to come into use could put cancer patients’ lives at risk. Currently in Britain we are trialling new types of so-called X-ray backscatter machines. In the States these machines have been trialled for over a year, and when introduced caused enormous concerns. Research said that they were safe
  • but how safe was the research ?
  • and who had paid for this ?
Don’t forget manufacturers of these machines stand to make billions world wide once they are adopted. They are coy about price (saying it depends on individual airports) but one U.S. site gave an approx. figure around £110,000 per machine. Each airport security gate is going to need at least one machine, and probably more for heavy traffic. Major airports could be made to install multiple machines per exit – you’ll need big envelope to work out cost of that!

Where America leads – we follow

In the States, concerns raised by Congress and others over full-body scanners used at airports have prompted the head of the Transportation Security Administration to order that they undergo further testing to address a “perception” they are unsafe. Regulating these machines falls under the TSA’s jurisdiction—and it doesn’t see what all the fuss is about. The TSA has repeatedly asserted that these machines are safe despite widely-held scientific opinion that even modest doses of ionizing radiation can increase one’s cancer risk; research is suggesting that as many as 100 people a year could contract cancer on account of this exposure—although the amount of radiation emitted from each machine is small. In its defense, the TSA has supplied research studies supporting this point, though none of them have been published in a peer-reviewed journal (normally mandatory for any research to be accepted). And America’s Food and Drug Administration, the strict Government controlled body, has no jurisdiction over approving these machines, as it can only test medical equipment. However, the great John is now admitting, “I am concerned that there’s a perception that they’re not as safe as they could be”. Newark Liberty and Philadelphia International airports are equipped with millimeter wave scanners, which use radio waves, not X-rays, to peer through passengers’ clothes, and so far have not been linked to health risks.

Administrator has red face

Researchers have raised concerns that even the tiny dose of radiation emitted by the scanners could mean a small number of fliers contract cancer. But with the TSA saying the machines are safe, Pistole told senators one scan exposes fliers to 1/1000th of the amount of radiation they would get from a chest X-ray. Rep. Rush Holt (D-12th Dist.), a long-time critic of X-ray scanners, issued a statement in reaction to Pistole’s congressional testimony, “I would hope that the TSA wants to deal with facts, not just perceptions,” said Holt, who in April co-sponsored a bill to ban all scanners until the National Academy of Sciences deemed them safe. “No one should be subjected to radiation unnecessarily.” TSA Administrator John Pistole eventually had to apologise when these machines were introduced. Operators made such a hash of the procedure that the great John was made to apologise – abjectly – to cancer patients who had been mortified by procedure. This wouldn’t happen in UK; in States cancer charities are all-powerful, made a huge media fuss and forced Pistole to go on TV and apologise in person. Here, although cancer charities have tried to raise concerns, these are arrogantly ignored by our Dept. for Transport (DfT), equivalent of the TSA. Cancer patients aren’t seen as a threat – we are too polite.

MEP carrying out campaign

Whatever we think of Brussels and the EU, one very good thing is our representative MEPs; very like MPs were in the old days. They don’t have to do what they are told by the Party – normally they act according to what is wanted by their constituents. So when I contacted my MEP, Syed Kamal, and told him of my concerns, immediately he came back to say he would be raising a question in the EU Parliament. In the succeeding twelve months he has asked another question, been in constant touch with our major cancer charities, and even had a meeting with the BAA.

What would reassure cancer patients ?

The Thalimodide disaster is still recent history. Millions of women were reassured it was safe during pregnancy, and ended up with deformed children. So the public’s fears should be listened to, as we don’t want similar disasters. In the States, Passengers can opt out of scans in favor of a metal detector test and a pat-down. This is what cancer charities in the UK are asking for – but the arrogant DfT has refused. Last month a dentist, travelling through Manchester Airport, asked that instead of going through the machine, as his job exposes him to high levels of rays, could be have a pat-down instead? Told no, he decided he couldn’t take the risk, and went home. This is a really sad indication of the arrogance of airport authorities.


David Brenner, a Columbia University radiological researcher, has said X-ray scanners delivered a radiation dose 20 times higher than the figure reported by the TSA, when specifically gauging exposure to the scalp. In October 2011, Pistole told the committee he would retest the X-ray machines, when senators raised the issue one day after publication of a story by ProPublica and PBS New Hour reporting that officials had downplayed concerns about the scanners. In August, Pistole responded to privacy concerns by announcing that scanners would be reprogrammed to produce generic imagery, rather than anatomically detailed outlines of individual fliers’ bodies. But when cancer charities were surveyed, most respondents replied that they weren’t too concerned about the image of their bodies appearing on a screen.

What you can do

Ask the airline you fly by what is procedure – then if their airport is using these machines, express concern and threaten to take the car, go by Eurostar, or cancel your flight. When airlines see profits being hit – they will put pressure on DfT to offer cancer patients a sensible alternative. The only reason why DfT won’t agree is that it will take more time to train the lowly-paid airport ‘security’ staff in how to give acceptable pat-downs (there have been some memorable incidents when they didn’t heed passengers’ warnings over stoma bags). So it boils down to a question of cost, whilst cancer patients’ genuine fears are ignored. And your call could be what tips the scales. Currently the DfT’s Press Office is very jittery – a sure sign they know they are being wrong-footed of policy. Supposedly no-one was in office until 1000 (there is supposed to be a press officer in from 0800 – so if they are not available ….) then when I asked a normal question about what is cost of each machine, suddenly they say they don’t have to answer that. So ask the Airport Security Desk who makes the machines? and get a very suspicious answer, “I’ll come back to you on that”.