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Airport Security Scanning

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This pages describes the difference between the cabinet and backscatter x-ray scanning systems being used for airport security.

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Overview

National security has become a top priority since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. From armed guards to advanced screening devices, airports are a prime example of increased security measures in the U.S. The intense scanning of luggage and the newest technology to scan passengers are raising concern about radiation exposure from these security measures.

Remember
Do not confuse the backscatter system with metal detectors. Metal detectors do not use ionizing radiation.

The cabinet x-ray system, used to scan luggage, is an enclosed system that uses shielding to keep radiation from exiting the walls of the unit. There is a strict standard on the amount of radiation that a cabinet x-ray system is allowed to emit. In addition, the standard also requires safety features that include warning lights, warning labels, and locks.

The human x-ray scanner, called the backscatter system, is a scanning device that gives a security value matched only by a strip search. The risk from the backscatter x-ray is low, and increases the chance of catching a threat to airport security.

Do not confuse the backscatter system with metal detectors. Metal detectors do not use ionizing radiation.

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Who is protecting you

U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS),  Transportation Security Administration (TSA)

TSA monitors the x-ray screening machines that examine carry-on luggage. Additionally, TSA trains screeners how to perform their job efficiently while minimizing everyone’s exposure to radiation from the machines.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

FDA has responsibility for assuring manufacturers produce x-ray systems that do not pose a radiation safety hazard. Safety regulation is divided between FDA and state regulatory agencies with the FDA typically regulating the manufacturer. FDA requires that all machines be properly calibrated and maintained.

The States

Safety regulation is divided between FDA and state regulatory agencies with the states regulating the use of the products.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

EPA issues general radiation guidance to other federal agencies that establish appropriate safety limits.

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What you can do to protect yourself

The risk from the backscatter x-ray is low and increases the chance of identifying a threat to airport security. If you have concerns about x-ray screening, you can request a pat down search instead.

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Resources

Frequently Asked Questions on Cabinet X-ray Systems
February 2012. U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Radiation-Emitting Products and Procedures
You can read more about cabinet x-ray systems on this webpage.

TSA:  How it Works
February 2012. Transportation Security Administration
This webpage will show you how the screening x-ray machines work. You can also see what the screeners see when someone walks through the screener.
Pregnancy & Radiation — Power lines, computers, airport screening, cell phones exit EPA
February 2012. Health Physics Society
On this webpage, you can learn about the safety of airport screening for pregnant women.
Screening Individuals with Backscatter X-Ray Systems exit EPA
February 2012. Health Physics Society
You can learn about the pros and cons of using backscatter x-ray systems for screening people.

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