TSA Full-Body Scans Would Not Pass Hospital IRB Reviews

Zzzzaapp! Some angry photons have just been blasted off toward your body, scouting for “contraband.” In the process of the search, these energetic massless particles will kick the crap out of some of your body’s cells, disrupting them in their duties. Some of these cells will be so desolated by the experience that they will lose their lust for life and will die. Others might be so incensed that they will turn rogue (i.e. cancerous).

But it’s OK, because Janet “I’m Not A Scientist” Napolitano has said it’s OK. Your submitting yourself to an invasive X-ray probe is a matter of security, and to this benighted female, nothing is more important. Except perhaps her reputation.

Passengers should understand that Napolitano has thought about these matters; therefore, they don’t need to. “It’s all about everybody recognising their role,” she said. Your role is to submit!

An IRB is an Institutional Review Board, a group of physicians, scientists, lawyers, ethicists, and members of the community which meets periodically to review and approve or disapprove research projects submitted by white-coated men and women. IRBs are charged with balancing the risks of proposed studies with their possible benefits. If the IRB judges the risks outweigh the benefits, the research is denied.

I have sat on multiple IRBs which have rejected, and rejected in some cases vociferously, experiments of the kind the TSA is now engaged in. IRBs are extremely wary of dosing people with X-rays (particularly CAT scans) unless the benefit is substantial. The theory IRBs use is invariably: the less exposure to X-rays the better.

It is important to understand that all radiation is not harmful (you are being bombarded even now with photons), that some is beneficial, and that the risk of untoward events even when exposed to ionizing radiation is usually small. It is also true that in many or most cases in which are you blasted with X-rays, it is for good reason. For example, the detection of broken bones, tumors, or cavities.

Just think: your dentist first lays a thick, lead-padded apron on your chest, then retreats from the room as he blasts some radiation towards your molars. His timidity isn’t because this particular dose of radiation will be harmful, but because the accumulated doses he would receive if he stayed in the room for all his patients might be.

How much risk is incurred by having a TSA agent goggle at your pertinents? Especially if you’re a frequent flier? Incidentally, is it just my natural distrust of authority, or is the TSA preferentially singling out the most beautiful women for “inspection”?

From an NPR story on how some scientists are questioning the safety of the X-ray probes:

“Many people will approach this as, ‘Oh, it must be safe, the government has thought about this and I’ll just submit to it,'” says David Agard, a biochemist and biophysicist at the University of California, San Francisco. “But there really is no threshold of low dose being OK. Any dose of X-rays produces some potential risk.”

What’s amusing about this is that Agard assumes that most people will believe that our government loves us and would never do anything to harm us. However, his next comment is of the kind I have heard often on IRBs. The risk is there, probably minor, but we have to take the government’s word for it (there have not been many independent tests). The question left unanswered is: what benefit is there?

And on this we have had no debate, no public argument. Instead, we have had a bureaucratic decision by fiat—but is there any other kind?

Here’s the real concern. The current dose, if the government is not, heaven forfend, lying or exaggerating, small. The problem may be that it is too small. There is, for example, already evidence that the scans might not catch some forms of explosives. Will our government then decide to secretively increase the dose to higher levels? After all, nothing is more important than safety!

It is also so that the TSA is engaged in fishing expeditions. And not just for titillating photos of beautiful women. Napolotiano has been careful to use the word “contraband” and not “weapons” to describe the use of the probes. Meaning that the TSA is also going after clowns with drugs strapped to their legs and so forth. Illegal search, anybody?

Of course, you needn’t submit to an x-ray centerfold shot. You may choose to take part in the TSA’s well-considered Grab, Grip, and Grope pantomime instead. Remember: you do not have a right to travel without government permission.

Update My Marvin Gaye comment from two days ago was prescient: I am listening now to WABC in New York (Saturday, 7:45 am) and they are playing a parody of the same Marvin Gaye song I had in mind.


  1. Speed

    A numbers bases risk/reward analysis:

    Nonetheless, the issue looks somewhat different when the likely consequences of the radiation exposure are considered in the aggregate. Globally, about 2 billion passengers fly each year, so screening all passengers with backscatter X-ray scans could reasonably be expected to result in about 32 excess cancer deaths per year.

    Quantifying the benefits from backscatter X-ray screening, in turn, requires considerable guesswork. But even if it detects or deters only one otherwise successful terrorist (or team of terrorists) per decade, such screening would appear to be cost-justified in terms of lives saved versus lives lost. Such screening would save the lives of passengers and crew potentially numbering in the hundreds and of other potential victims who could number in the thousands …

    The foregoing lives-to-lives comparison is fuzzy at best, but it is still incomplete because it does not take account of other factors, such as privacy, time, and money …

    From Schneier on Security

    Yesterday, Schneier pointed to an excellent perspective piece from Salon’s Ask the Pilot.

    Here’s a scenario:
    Middle Eastern terrorists hijack a U.S. jetliner bound for Italy. A two-week drama ensues in which the plane’s occupants are split into groups and held hostage in secret locations in Lebanon and Syria.

    While this drama is unfolding, another group of terrorists detonates a bomb in the luggage hold of a 747 over the North Atlantic, killing more than 300 people.

    Not long afterward, terrorists kill 19 people and wound more than a hundred others in coordinated attacks at European airport ticket counters.

    A few months later, a U.S. airliner is bombed over Greece, killing four passengers.
    Five months after that, another U.S. airliner is stormed by heavily armed terrorists at the airport in Karachi, Pakistan, killing at least 20 people and wounding 150 more.

    Things are quiet for a while, until two years later when a 747 bound for New York is blown up over Europe killing 270 passengers and crew.

    Nine months from then, a French airliner en route to Paris is bombed over Africa, killing 170 people from 17 countries.

    And finally, is there a better use for the money spent on scanners, pat-downs and PR? More runways? Upgrading Air Traffic Control? Reducing the deficit?

  2. I have a dream. I dream of an airport that hires its own security professionals. An airport where each potential passenger is profiled, checked against a database, and personally interviewed in an intelligent and objective manner by well-trained and experienced staff. An airport which only serves airlines flying between similarly operated airports. Drat. I woke up and found myself in Tel Aviv.

  3. Pat Moffitt

    John Pistole of TSA said yesterday in face of the growing anger over screening that the Public would have to get used to them– the policy would not change. The fact that a government employee feels sufficiently empowered to openly state public concerns are meaningless is unsettling.

    Perhaps we should ask the question— at what level of risk (for any event) do we lose our rights to choose?

  4. Doug M

    What is the risk to those TSA agents who check you bags, and direct people through these scanning machines to be irradiated all day every day?

  5. Ken

    Such instrusive actions WILL prompt various forms of retaliation. And when it’s personal it gets personal … expect retaliation that will be directed at the TSA agents themseves — especially those who abuse their duty.

    CAUTION: One should be careful if wearing brand [“spanking”] new dress shirts — if the factory installed pins & needles aren’t removed they might damage a TSA agent’s hand, leading to bleeding & staining of one’s clothes. Even more embarrising than the pat down would be bloody finger & hand prints on one’s ‘nether parts.’ Blood is hard to remove (I know this from playing hockey, by the way…).

    Also, depending on one’s line of work & hobbies, there are also very toxic chemicals that in minute quantities, such as might land & stay on the tip of such a pin (or even accidentally pocketed razor!) that would prove very disruptive, even deadly, if someone were to prick their finger while fingering one’s p _ _ _ k.

  6. DAV


    Poisoned pins sound tempting but are more likely a danger to yourself. You also might want to consider that no one is really looking to see if you ever emerge from your pat-down when conducted in “privacy”.

    On the fun side of statistics: given that there are more than 10e6 airline flights in the US every year (or more than 800K/month; FAA stats from 2008 claimed 13e6; or 37K per day) with roughly an average 200-300 passengers per flight, if one airliner is brought down per month your chances of being involved are still pretty slim.

    But given that we live in the days of cowering under the bed from imaginary monsters (like GW), that slim probability is too high for most (supposedly college educated) Americans. One of my co-workers today said he would gladly strip in front of all if that’s would it took to be safe. He somehow couldn’t say how doing so would make the flight safe.

    Speaking of college priorities: today, the Washington Post had — on its front page — a notice that the U-MD football coach will not be replaced. Obviously, this must be important news. (To be fair, the full article was in the sports section).

  7. DAV

    hmmmm … I see that Briggs’s enemies use the typo weapon indiscriminately and have little concern over collateral damage.

  8. Ray

    I saw a story some time back about a terrorist who concealed his bomb in a body cavity. Soon TSA will require a body cavity search to fly.

  9. No to the x-rays. Yes to the groping, if the TSA gropers are attractive young women wearing bikinis. Most businessmen airline passengers go directly from the airport to a peeler bar where they pay to be groped, anyway.

    Let American business ingenuity solve this problem. The Gummit should stay out of it.

  10. a jones

    OT. I was going to comment on this but pressure of business etc.

    Moreover Mr. Briggs I have taken your name in vain.

    WUWT currently has a post up about some survey or another about AGW etc. Since you are listed on the WUWT board I have merely suggested that you might be consulted on the matter.

    No doubt you will be able to offer sage advice.

    Kindest Regards

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