TSA Scanners: U.C. San Francisco Radiologists Debunk Radiation Fears

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Calm down, people...
Update 12/3: TSA slaps us on the wrist about using this picture. This is an old image. The newer ones look more like Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Among the elements of paranoia and righteousness emanating from those opting out of TSA scans today, U.C. San Francisco radiology specialists say the fear of radiation should not be included. These are experts, folks, and their message is: You're not going to get cancer from these machines.

In fact, the radiation scientists told SF Weekly that the warnings about the scanners in a letter written by top U.C. San Francisco scientists earlier this year  were plain "wrong," and written by people who "are totally unrelated to radiation," in the words of Professor Ronald Arenson. Robert Gould, a physicist in the UCSF radiology department and member of the Radiation Safety Committee in the university's Office of Research, contends that the amount of background radiation a person is exposed to in a normal day is the equivalent of 85 screenings in a TSA scanner.

The widely circulated April letter from four illustrious professors urged Dr. John Holdren, Assistant to President Obama for Science and Technology, to convene an impartial panel to evaluate the health risks involved with the scanners.

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The letter suggested that the scanners may concentrate an unhealthy amount of radiation to the skin, instead of spreading the rays out into the whole body like an X-ray. They said travelers over 65 and those with HIV were particularly at risk, and called for more evaluation of the effects on children and pregnant women. The letter also raised concern about radiation mutating men's sperm, since the testicles lay right under the skin. Ouch!

The FDA has since rebutted those claims and put out a letter of its own. Now the evidence is piling up that there's nothing to be worried about, say three professors in the radiology department at UCSF itself.

"The conclusions are wrong," Ronald Arenson, professor of radiology, tells SF Weekly of his own institution's letter. "People who are totally unrelated to radiation wrote it. ... It was senior faculty at UCSF. They're smart people and well-intended, but their conclusions, I think, were off-base. They don't understand how radiation translates to an actual dose in the human body."

It's been widely reported that the amount of radiation dealt to your body by the scanners is the equivalent of two minutes of flying time. Extrapolate that to your flight to Europe. 

"The airport scanner thing is totally bogus," says Professor Fergus Coakley, chief of the abdominal imaging section at the UCSF radiology department. When you fly, you're "closer to the sun, there's less shielding from cosmic radiation, so being worried about the scan on the way to the plane ride where you're getting extra radiation is bogus."

Coakley says he's traveling this weekend to a radiology conference in Chicago, and he'll gladly take the scan. "I'd rather do that than the enhanced pat-down," he says with a laugh.

Arenson agrees. "I'll go through the scanner before getting patted down. Not that I care about being patted down, but it takes longer."

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