As the backlash continues against the TSA’s full body scanning and increasingly aggressive pat-downs of those who opt out, the agency has bent a little in one area. The head of TSA today questioned the need to use the added security on pilots. The pilots organization had already told its members to opt out of the scans to avoid extra radiation exposure. Now, the TSA says that as of 2011 pilots will only need to have their airline-issued IDs checked by computer.
“This one seemed to jump out as a common-sense issue,” Transportation Security Administration (TSA) chief John Pistole told Bloomberg News on Friday. “Why don’t we trust pilots who are literally in charge of the aircraft?” That’s exactly the point commercial airline pilots have been making for years. [Christian Science Monitor]
What Pistole did not do, however, was back off the policy of using the scanners on the rest of us. And yesterday on its blog, the TSA tried to launch a PR counter-offensive to the tidal wave of bad press this week. (Though you might not be terribly satisfied with their answer to the question of whether pat-downs are invasive, about which Ars Technica quips, “Nowhere in the “Fact” response does the TSA directly answer the allegation of invasiveness, probably because the pat-downs are invasive.”)
Since the TSA appears disinclined to change its mind about scanning or getting touchy-feely with the general public, lawmakers are beginning to make some noise. In New York, councilman David Greenfield proposed rules to bar TSA from using the x-ray scanners in the city’s airports.
It’s not like this week was the first appearance of the full-body X-ray scanners in American airports. Yet, thanks to the looming holiday travel season, leaked X-ray images that were supposed to be kept private, and high-profile rebellion by pilots’ organizations and disgruntled passengers, anger is rising against the Transportation Security Administration’s new airport rules. Under the policy, those chosen for extra screening face the dilemma of having their naked bodies revealed to TSA scanners or opting out and having agents feel them up in search of explosives.
But behind the outrage at being asked to surrender even more of our dignity just to get on a plane, there’s another full-body scanning issue simmering: the health dangers of radiation.
How much radiation, and where?
This was the main concern of the Allied Pilots Association. Pilots are already exposed to higher levels of radiation than nearly all professionals because they spend so much time at altitude and receive radiation from space; asking them to take an X-ray every time they get on a plane (even one that the TSA says is thousands of times less intense than a hospital chest X-ray) was asking too much. Popular Mechanics posted more details on pilot exposure.
So what about the rest of us, who fly perhaps only a few times per year? Back in May, professors at the University of California, San Francisco, led by John Sedat sent a letter to the Food and Drug Administration with a litany of red flags about using back-scatter X-ray with such frequency—mostly that the safety has not be independently proven. The FDA finally replied with a lengthy letter citing study after study that show full-body scanning is safe, the agency says.
A quarter-century after the catastrophe, Chernobyl can’t stay out of the news.
When fires broke out in Russia this month, people worried that the flames would spread to areas still affected by the radiation, with unknown consequences. And this week, we learned that Chernobyl-related radiation is actually on the rise somewhere else: in German boars.
Yes, that’s right, boars.
The latest entry into the cellphones-radiation-health debate is a British study of thousands of children, which investigated whether the proximity of pregnant women to cellphone towers had any effect on whether their kids developed tumors or leukemia. The result: a big no.
Researchers from Imperial College London identified 1,397 children under five who were diagnosed with leukaemia or a tumour of the brain or central nervous system between 1999 and 2001. They compared each child with four children of the same gender who were born on the same day but had not developed cancer [The Guardian].
They then cross-compared all those children to how much radiation their mothers likely received during pregnancy, based on a survey of more than 80,000 cell towers and their radiation output. No matter how they ran the numbers, the team couldn’t find a significant effect.
For instance, the mothers whose children were diagnosed with cancer lived an average of 1,173 yards from a cellphone tower while they were pregnant — statistically indistinguishable from the 1,211 yards that separated the other pregnant women from their nearest cellphone towers. Tallying up the total power output of all cellphone towers within 766 yards of each pregnant woman’s home, they found that both groups had nearly the same exposure — 2.89 kilowatts for the mothers of cancer victims and 3.00 kilowatts for the other mothers [Los Angeles Times].
After a 10-to-1 vote in the Board of Supervisors, San Francisco stands poised to force cellphone makers to display the level of radiation their phones emit next the phone’s display in a store. It would become the first American city to do so.
The mayor, Gavin Newsom, supported the measure and will probably sign it into law. If he does, the rules will be phased in February next year, and violators who don’t provide the information will be charged up to $300. Predictably, the move is lauded as progressive and pro-consumer if you ask supporters and cast as a misleading ordinance if you ask the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association. But what does it actually mean?
The number in question is called the specific absorption rate, or SAR. It’s a measure of how much of the phone’s radio frequency energy gets absorbed into a person’s tissue. Although no clear picture has emerged of what effects cell phone radiation has on health (though there are plenty of interesting and contradictory studies), there are already legal upper limits for the SAR of phones. Here in the United States, the Federal Communications Commission is responsible for testing those levels and won’t allow anything higher than 1.6 watts per kilogram of body weight. In Europe the cap’s a little higher—2 watts per kg.
Back and forth go the studies investigating whether cell phone uses increases the risk of brain cancer (the latest one to get major press, released last month, found nothing there). This week, though, new research has grabbed the headlines by declaring that our ubiquitous communication and time-wasting devices could actually provide a health benefit.
In a study set to come out today in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease (and funded in part by the National Institute on Aging), a group led by Gary Arendash argues that the radiation from cell phones that we’ve been worrying about could protect against Alzheimer’s Disease. But it’s far too soon to advise people to start medicating themselves by talking even longer on the phone.
Researchers at the Florida Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center arranged about 70 mouse cages in a circle around a central antenna that emitted electromagnetic waves typical of what would emanate from a phone pressed to a human head. They were exposed to the radiation for two hours a day over seven to nine months. About two dozen other mice served as controls [Los Angeles Times]. Arendash’s team used mice they had genetically engineered to develop the brain buildups and memory problems typical of Alzheimer’s when they got older. The team says that the memory problems of those mice exposed to the radiation began to disappear during the study. Not only that, but normal mice (that hadn’t been genetically engineered) also showed memory improvements after exposure.
Medical imaging tests such as CT scans are valuable diagnostic tools, but their increasing use in doctors’ offices and hospitals is providing a sizable dose of radiation for about 4 million Americans under the age of 65. About 400,000 of those Americans receive very high doses, more than the maximum annual exposure allowed for nuclear power plant employees or anyone else who works with radioactive material [The New York Times], according to a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine.
Researchers based their estimates on a study of almost 1 million people between the ages of 18 and 64 who they followed for almost three years, and found that nearly 70 percent of test subjects were subjected to at least one procedure that would have exposed them to radiation. Although the study didn’t examine whether this radiation could cause an increase in cancer rates, some experts believe it would probably result in tens of thousands of additional cancers…. Each individual patient is at relatively minor additional risk from the tests, [researcher and cardiologist Rita] Redberg said, but because they are given to so many people, the cumulative risk is significant [The New York Times].
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