I Told My Son, ‘Don’t Let Them Do It!’

By W. Gifford-Jones, M.D.
Created: January 16, 2011 Last Updated: January 16, 2011
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OPTING OUT: This table at Baltimore Washington Airport the day before Thanksgiving, Nov. 24, 2010, encouraged people to opt out of body scanners. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

OPTING OUT: This table at Baltimore Washington Airport the day before Thanksgiving, Nov. 24, 2010, encouraged people to opt out of body scanners. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

What’s the biggest problem facing airline travelers today? Ask this question and many would say it’s the long wait at airports, removing shoes, extensive screening procedures, and that “damn pat-down” by airport personnel.

But during the public uproar about airport security, some travelers will make a huge mistake.

The United States is replacing many metal detectors with more-sophisticated equipment, better described as personal-exposure devices. In effect, the technology can detect articles beneath the clothing, and this infuriates many travelers.

There are two types of scanners. The millimeter wave machine is safe, creating an image of the body by using electromagnetic waves. The other, “backscatter” devices, use low-energy X-rays to produce a picture of the body. These are not so safe.

The first thing I did when I read about these new scanners was to call my son, a frequent flier. My advice was simple, “Don’t let them X-ray you. Let them pat you down as much as they like, but no X-rays.” The last thing he and other fliers need is more radiation.

As you might expect, the U.S. government says that the amount of radiation exposure is minimal. It claims the amount the body receives is the same as natural radiation exposure from two minutes of flying. But some authorities believe the radiation dose is higher.

Experts say backscatter machines use low-energy X-rays. This means that most of the radiation is absorbed by the skin, and unlike medical X-rays, does not enter the body. This does not reassure me one bit. Since it’s absorbed by the skin, will it cause skin cancer years from now?

The word “most” always worries me. It invariably recalls the time I was urging the legalization of heroin to ease the agony of terminal cancer patients. My critics, and there were many, argued heroin was not needed, as morphine eased the pain of most cancer patients. They never acknowledged what happened if you were not one of the “most” group.

Other problems worry me more. Years ago, a research paper was leaked to me that was shocking. It reported a study that found some X-ray equipment in Canada was exposing patients to 90 times the normal radiation required for the procedure! In fact, the dose was reaching lethal limits! It was unconscionable that no government agency was alerting the public to this problem.

But the problem was not merely faulty machines. Poorly trained technicians were pushing buttons that caused increased radiation exposure. In the worst mistake of all, health agencies had failed to inspect X-ray machines for years. My column lead to a commission to correct these glaring errors.

Could this same scenario occur with airport backscatter devices? I don’t see how anyone can guarantee malfunctioning machines or careless technicians won’t eventually expose passengers to high doses of radiation.

So what error will fliers make? Authorities say that passengers can refuse to have a backscatter search and opt for the metal detector. But if they choose this course, they must agree to a personal pat-down.

This adds time, so many harried fliers will opt for the X-ray search to get quickly through the gate. It’s a bad mistake, as radiation is cumulative, and the body can only handle so much before cancer strikes.

My advice is to forget Victorian modesty. Rather, avoid radiation like the plague. Remember, a small hole can sink a large ship. Too many bits of a little radiation can produce long-term health risks. Take the pat-down every time.

Dr. Gifford-Jones is a medical journalist with a private medical practice in Toronto.

His website is He may be contacted at


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