Tomorrow I’ll be taking a flight out of my regional airport and will be forced to choose between a full body scan and a pat down. It’s an easy choice for me, I have no problem with being patted down, but the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents never seem happy. Each time I ask for a pat down in lieu of a full body scan, they try to discourage me.
Perhaps it’s because they don’t have enough womanpower to accommodate my request. Perhaps the female workers feel uncomfortable and would prefer everyone choose radiation. No matter. As long as I have a choice, I’d rather have the known hazards of a pat down (essentially none except for the creepy feeling of a stranger’s hands on my body) than risk the unknown hazards of a new technology that’s been implemented without, in my opinion, adequate time and study.
The TSA, which refers to the full body scanner as advanced imaging technology states it “is safe and meets national health and safety requirements” and “results confirmed that the radiation doses for the individuals being screened, operators, and bystanders were well below the dose limits specified by the American National Standards Institute (http://www.tsa.gov/approach/tech/ait/safety.shtm). The Archives of Internal Medicine reports: “The estimation of cancer risks associated with these scans is difficult, but using the only available models, the risk would be extremely small, even among frequent flyers. We conclude that there is no significant threat of radiation from the scans” (http://archinte.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=227603).
Unfortunately I have a hard time trusting these pronouncements.
History tells us that many times in the rush to develop and market new technology, risks are either underestimated or unknown until something has been used for a period of years and on a multitude of people.
CT scans became widely available by 1980. After more than thirty years of use, concerns about a possible correlation between CT scans and brain cancer surfaced. Now the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has an initiative to reduce unnecessary radiation exposure and notes that CT scans, fluoroscopy and nuclear medicine imaging exams have benefits and risks and “these types of exams expose patients to ionizing radiation, which may elevate a person’s lifetime risk of developing cancer” (http://www.fda.gov/Radiation-EmittingProducts/RadiationSafety/RadiationDoseReduction/default.htm).
In 2003, DePuy Orthopaedics introduced a new metal-on-metal hip replacement implant. In August 2010 they issued a voluntary recall after discovering a higher than expected number of patients needed revision surgery.
Vioxx, a medication marketed for arthritis and acute pain, was approved for use by the FDA in 1999. The increased risk of cardiovascular events, including heart attacks and strokes, wasn’t found until a later study in June 2000. An additional warning was added to the Vioxx label in 2002, but it took another two years before Merck & Co. voluntarily withdrew Vioxx from the market after a third study confirmed the cardiovascular risks. The aftermarket studies for Vioxx were voluntary studies the manufacturer undertook to look at side effects and additional indications. If not for those, Vioxx may have been on the market for many years before its serious, and sometimes fatal, side effects were discovered.
In all of these cases, decent, hardworking scientists, academics, and government monitors gave their seal of approval for something that turned out to have unintended, dangerous side effects. In all of these cases the product was in wide use before the danger was known.
In ten years, maybe I’ll have a different opinion on the full body scanner.
For tomorrow, pat me down.