An investigation published this week by ProPublica and PBS NewsHour raised serious questions about whether the federal government glossed over cancer risks as it deployed full body X-ray scanners like the ones used at San Diego International Airport.

The body scanners, which the Transportation Security Administration uses to detect explosives, emit tiny amounts of radiation to create an image of a passenger’s body that’s privately reviewed by a security screener.

That has broken a medical taboo, the investigation says: Using radiation for something other than a medical exam. The government has used X-ray scanners despite having a safer, equally effective option that doesn’t expose travelers to radiation, the investigation found.

Passengers are randomly selected to go through the machines at San Diego International Airport, where they’ve been operating for almost two years. The scanners attracted national media attention in 2010 after an Oceanside man famously warned TSA officers not to touch his “junk” while being patted down after refusing to be scanned.

While that incident attracted attention to the privacy issues surrounding the scanners, the ProPublica/PBS investigation says little notice has been given to the potential health risks posed by the machines. The federal government has two types of technologies available. One uses X-rays to create a body image, the other, safer technology uses radio waves to do the same.

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The story reports:

Today, the United States has begun marching millions of airline passengers through the X-ray body scanners, parting ways with countries in Europe and elsewhere that have concluded that such widespread use of even low-level radiation poses an unacceptable health risk. The government is rolling out the X-ray scanners despite having a safer alternative that the Transportation Security Administration says is also highly effective.

A ProPublica/PBS NewsHour investigation of how this decision was made shows that in post-9/11 America, security issues can trump even long-established medical conventions. The final call to deploy the X-ray machines was made not by the FDA, which regulates drugs and medical devices, but by the TSA, an agency whose primary mission is to prevent terrorist attacks.

Research suggests that anywhere from six to 100 U.S. airline passengers each year could get cancer from the machines. Still, the TSA has repeatedly defined the scanners as “safe,” glossing over the accepted scientific view that even low doses of ionizing radiation – the kind beamed directly at the body by the X-ray scanners – increase the risk of cancer.

The TSA uses X-ray body scanners in San Diego because the airport’s screening areas were spacious enough to accommodate the machines, which are larger than radio wave scanners, said Nico Melendez, a TSA spokesman. Melendez said both technologies cost about the same for each machine: $150,000 to $160,000.

Asked why the government uses scanners in San Diego that emit radiation if a safer option is readily available, similarly priced and takes up less space, Melendez said:

The machines are safe for use on passengers and around our workforce. They’re an effective security tool and allow us to see threats we couldn’t before.

Melendez said he didn’t know how many passengers had passed through the X-ray scanners at San Diego.

Rob Davis is a senior reporter at You can contact him directly at or 619.325.0529.

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Rob Davis was formerly a senior reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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