The legacy of 9/11—Airport scanners and radiation-blocking underwear

DiagnosticImaging.com

Before you get on that plane, check the frequent flyers’ round trip special from Rocky Flats Gear: Purchase two pair of men’s radiation-shielding briefs and two pair of women’s briefs and get two pair of bra inserts for free.

It seems like only yesterday when ads on the back cover of comic books tried to lure me to buy x-ray glasses. Those were the days. Today, the Transportation Safety Administration—an oxymoron no matter how you look at it—has the x-ray glasses. The rest of us have to decide whether to go through the innocuous-looking contraptions that strip us naked or line up for a pat down.

Jeff Buske and his wife have come up with a solution. They have designed radiation-absorbing undergarments for sale to the flying public as a way to minimize the damage caused by the “DNA-scrambling electronic strip search boxes.” It’s the latest development in a sea of controversy surrounding the whole-body scanners that are popping up at airports across the U.S. and around the world.

In March, radiology luminary and imaging pioneer Leon Kaufman argued that the backscatter airport body scanners expose travelers to undetermined amounts of radiation without reason and with little knowledge of the consequences. A senior vice president of a company that makes these scanners countered by claiming that Kaufman made “certain incorrect assertions” and that the dose was “truly negligible by any standard radiation metric.”

Much has been written since then calling the safety of these scanners into question, including an authoritative piece by Dr. Peter A. Rinck. But Buske and his wife are the only folks I’ve come across who have a way to deal with the problem.

Jeff wrote me in response to a commentary published on DI.com a couple of weeks ago asking, “will concerns over airport radiation help efforts to rein in patient dose?” Just weeks earlier we had reported an effort by U.S. senators to look into the health effects of airport scanners. I wondered if the imminent threat posed by security scanners might catalyze political action on radiation safety in the medical arena. Jeff raised the stakes considerably with claims that the use of gamma backscatter devices at airports barely hint at the real danger.

The feds, he claimed in an e-mail to me, are using portable machines to search the trunks of parked cars in driveways and roads and even to scan homes. “No need to go to the airport. The machines come to you; saves you gas!” he wrote.

Rocky Flats Gear will help keep its customers safe from the natural and man-made radiation of everyday life, according to the company, as well as TSA-imposed dangers at the airport. Adorned by radiation-inspired icons or an appropriately placed leaf, these briefs and bra shields are designed to be worn under regular clothes. They are thin and flexible, lightweight and lead-free, according to Buske. When asked if wearing these undergarments, which block the view of airport scanners, might raise suspicions among TSA officials, Jeff replied, “The last time I checked, we have a right to wear non–government-approved underwear.”

While it’s hard to argue with that or his assertions that the devices themselves raise constitutional and criminal issues related to privacy and health risks, it’s doubtful that such arguments will carry much weight at airports. The likely consequence would be a TSA pat down, which was the choice given me recently at Reagan National Airport in Washington, DC, if I decided not to go through the scanner. So long as this choice is given, there seems little reason for me to change my wardrobe.

But one concern that Jeff raised, almost as an afterthought, was unsettling. After airports, he asked, what would be next? Schools? Malls? Sports stadiums and arenas? Precedents tend to lay the groundwork for broader diffusion of a variety of practices and, possibly, as in this case, technology.

As horrific as the World Trade Center attack was nine years ago, how much worse will it be if fear drives us to irradiate millions of men, women, and children over extended periods, causing genetic damage that will do far greater harm to the U.S. than Al Qaeda could ever have dreamed?

It’s already changing how we think about our underwear.

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