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I agree that having to choose between flying and getting groped/strip-scanned or not flying is ridiculous, and I'm happy that he and others were able to circumvent this.

But he says they were using Millimeter Wave Scanners, which as far as I can tell, and contrary to his argument, do not use x-rays. That letter refers to another type of machine, x-ray backscatter scanners.

Well, firstly, the fact that the TSA employee didn't challenge that statement tells me that either that employee isn't properly informed or he/she knows more than what is publicly known. I'm gonna go on a limb and say it's the former rather than latter.

Secondly, it shouldn't be a question of whether the machine is x-ray or millimeter wave. Both of those emit radiation and until there's definitive proof that one or both do not cause damage, they shouldn't be in use.

We actually have a very good idea how much damage x-rays and millimeter waves do to the human body, since we've been dealing with both technologically for many years.

Because x-rays are used in medical devices that have to be approved by the FDA, we've developed some very good ideas about what sort of doses are harmful and which aren't. The damage done by the x-ray scans used by the TSA do indeed produce damage, measured in Sieverts - a scale used by medical technicians, nuclear power plant operators, NASA, etc. Generally a dose of 1 Sievert all at once is enough to make you sick. Radiation expose is usually measured in milliSieverts and a person who doesn't do anything dangerous will usually receive a couple of milliSieverts a year just from the sun and the radioactive decay of things like the carbon in their body. Going through a TSA x-ray scanner will give you about a microSievert (or 1/1000 of a milliSievert) unless you do something like stop in the middle of the scanner and daydream. Because flying on a plane involves going higher with less atmospher to protect you from radiation from outer space, even short flights tend to cause you to rack up 10 microSieverts and longer flights will give you more. So even if you fly every day the excess dose you're getting from the machines is ignorable, and if you are flying every day its only increasing the amount of radiation you're getting by 10%.

As to millimeter waves, well, I'm not sure quite what mechanism they could possibly use to be dangerous, since they're less energetic than the visible light that we're exposed to every day. If you're inclined to worry about stuff like that, I'd recommend worrying more about fluorescent lights (where all the energy is concentrated in a few frequencies and which we're exposed to for long periods of time) or cell phones and wireless access points (which have about the same energy as the TSA devices, and which we're exposed to for long periods of time).

But isn't 10 microSieverts over a 5 hour flight much better than 1 microSievert in the span on a few seconds?


For carcinogenic purposes (what we are discussing here), no.

The fractionation effect only comes into play when you receive such a high radiation does that it can cause large amounts of cell death. Similarly, being burned (with fire) twice at low intensity is better than being burned once at high intensity, since your body can partially recover after the first burn.

The health concern raised about the backscatter x-ray devices is that the rays they use are very low-energy compared to the x-rays we are used to. Because of this, the entire radiation dose will be concentrated on the first millimeter or so of your skin, which means that the radiation dose your skin absorbs from the device will be considerably higher than the dose it absorbs from flying.

You've made the mistake of fighting fear, emo-drama & crusade/martyr psychology, with evidence, facts and logic. In any such fight, the latter tends to lose. :)

> Both of those emit radiation and until there's definitive proof that one or both do not cause damage, they shouldn't be in use.

Should we ban your light bulbs because they emit radiation that is in every way more dangerous than millimeter waves?

Sorry, but the catch-all "ban all radiation because the word radiation sounds scary" is beyond stupid. I believe there are good reasons not to use this kind of technology (mostly it's about privacy), but luddism like this degrades the legitimate health concerns there are against backscatter x-ray machines.

There is definitive proof that millimeter wave does not cause cancer, considering it's basically far infrared light which hits you all day every day.

Millimeter wave and X-ray scanners are not the same thing and should never be confused.

I personally would never go through an X-ray scanner. Are the scanners marked in some way so I know which is which?

From an NPR blog entry:

By the way, you might be wondering: Can the average traveler standing in a security line tell the difference? Yes, a TSA spokesman says. The X-ray type is blue and has two walls. The millimeter-wave machine is grayish-white and is more cylindrical.


Thanks. Just how shielded are those X-ray scanners?

They look like just walking near them will expose you.

You could stand next to them all day and it would still be less than 1% of your daily radiation dose from cosmic rays. More importantly, for argument's sake, it would be much less than the amount of additional radiation you pick up on a standard flight.

I know, but I still don't want unnecessary radiation.

stay out of sunlight. don't eat bananas. don't use cellphones. don't stare into a computer screen. don't have a WiFi network in your house/office. and probably don't have a microwave oven either, just to be safe. Because none of those things are necessary. ;)

I'm not arguing for them. I'm arguing for arguing well.

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