The Scoop on Airport Scanners

If you’re traveling via commercial airliner anytime soon, you will likely endure long lines for airport security—and although the delays can be annoying, ideally this means your travel will be safe. But what happens when you step into the full-body scanners? Is the screening technology actually safe for your body?

How Body Scanners Keep You Safe

For decades, U.S. airports used metal detectors to screen passengers for concealed weapons. But after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was formed along with new levels of security in airports, including improved technology to detect non-metal threats.

One of the scanners introduced at that time used controversial backscatter X-ray technology, which produced revealing full-body images and is no longer in use. The exposure to radiation from these backscatter detectors was determined to be about one-tenth of what you’d get from a chest X-ray, which experts confirm could present a small risk of cancer.

These days, airports use full-body scanners—the ones you stand in with your feet apart and your hands above your head. These use millimeter-wave imaging technology, where radio waves search for hidden weapons or devices.

What Scientists Say

Most experts agree this technology shouldn’t worry you. Although scientists can never say that something is 100 percent safe, Andrew Maidment, an associate professor of radiology at the University of Pennsylvania Health System, says the current scanners are “not a concern.” Maidment has conducted extensive studies on the effects of radiation exposure on human health and believes the minute amount of non-ionizing radiation emitted by current radio-wave airport scanners is not harmful, even for pregnant women, neonates and children. According to the TSA, this technology emits 10,000 times less radio-frequency energy than an average cell phone. However, a 2009 study questions the safety of these terahertz waves on the natural dynamics of DNA; and the lack of more conclusive research leaves this question unanswered.

Your Right to Opt Out

You may not realize that as a passenger you have the right to opt out of any technology used to scan your body. If you choose to opt out, however, you will be required to receive a thorough pat down by a TSA official. TSA officers of the same gender will perform your pat down using the back of their hand over sensitive areas. You may request a private screening for this accompanied by a companion of your choice.

Whatever your decision, keep in mind that, despite the inconvenience, heightened airport security is in place to get you safely in the air and to your destination with your family and loved ones.