Risk, Radiation, and Airports

With all of the news from Japan, and some additional information that’s been published, I thought it might be a nice time to revisit something I wrote last year about the “naked scanners” in use at airports.

Most of what I feared in that post has come to pass. Many different accounts are available of disabled individuals humiliated, and rape and cancer survivors traumatized.  Two examples:

Alaskan Representative chooses to skip TSA patdown:

“Cissna said she is not very sensitive about her mastectomy and did not have breast reconstruction surgery….Yet she is acutely sensitive to being aggressively touched in private areas because of a traumatic touching experience she underwent as a child, she said.”

Please remove your breast

“The TSA screener “put her full hand on my breast and said, ‘What is this?’ ” Bossi told the station. “And I said, ‘It’s my prosthesis because I’ve had breast cancer.’ And she said, ‘Well, you’ll need to show me that.’ “

There have not been many public issues with transfolk traveling, but it is a big topic of discussion.

Also? Now whenever those people are Googled, what’s going to come up? That they were molested as a child, carry their urine in a bag, or have a fake boob.  That’s information that people would rather be allowed to share on their own.

Some legislators have suggested charging TSA with “sexual assault.” That’s not going to solve the problem. (And, frankly, I don’t think using “rape” in this context is productive at all–it trivializes a very violent and traumatic crime.)  TSA employees are mostly low wage Joes and Janes that are carrying out their orders.  (And adding to the security theater by flying in lingerie is not helping.)

The solution is better training, and more options.  Many of the people who’ve had issues with TSA patdowns did go through the advanced scanners of one type or another–but were then pulled aside for additional searches because they were physically different.

Until we learn to deal with difference sensitively–whether it’s a Muslim woman in a headscarf or a non-standard body part–this will remain a problem.

But what about the second item discussed in that post, the actual scanners themselves?  An article I linked to had the title “Felt up or Blown Up.”  This pretty much summarizes the perception of a lot of people about the Hobson’s choice that they face when flying.

It’s been known for a long time that the perception of how risky an activity is can have many  different factors other than the actual hard number probability of something bad happening.

People generally are more afraid of technology-induced hazards than naturally-occurring hazards.  We also tend to fear risks we can’t control over self-chosen risks as well (flying in an airplane vs. driving, for example).

The National Safety Council produced this excellent visualization of the comparative risks of different activities.  Of course, the ultimate probability of your death is 100%.

The way in which a risk is communicated (“Radiation = bad!”, for example) can make a big difference in how we perceive it.  It’s clear from another recent post on Skepchick, doctors seem to be telling people to not have “too many” X-rays and CT scans. That’s probably due to this recent paper: Elements of Danger: Medical Imaging, which discussed the way that patients were ending up with large cumulative exposures to ionizing radiation.  It suggested that doctors seek to reduce the use of some types of medical scanning.

So, doctors pass that information on to their patients–as they should.  But, how does that relate to planes and scanners?

Growth in Medical Imaging graphDoctors and laypeople (including ME!) are not discriminating between different types of radiation, and coming to an incorrect conclusion that there might be some risk involved in the airport scanners.

So, learn from my fail:  let’s explore why that mistake happens.  Humans use heuristics to infer what will happen in a new situation.  (“Heuristic” is a fancy way to say you use your past experience to predict what will happen in a new situation, when you don’t have a lot of time.)

One thing that affects how people assess risk  of injury is availability.  In other words, how easily can you think of an instance that is similar? Even though injuries from radiation are rare, they are highly publicized (and  horrible), and so may seem disproportionately common.

The distrust of the government and medical authorities to not keep us “safe” from radiation  probably stems, in part, from very public mistakes.  That isn’t, though, a problem with the science. That is human error. And there is never a way to completely reduce that in any system, unfortunately.

Another type of heuristic is, ironically, trust in authority.  I assumed my doctor knew what she was talking about; mostly because I don’t have time to check everything she tells me. Heuristics exist for us to make decisions quickly.

So that’s a couple forms of heuristic bias; there is also some interesting evidence that the way in which an issue is reported can be just as influential as the facts that are reported:

“news stories of public meetings filled with distrust and controversy led to ratings indicating greater perceived risk than news stories reporting no distrust or controversy, even though the risk information was held constant.” (emphasis mine)

This is a rather depressing conclusion. What this implies is that anytime there is a controversy, the hype will trump the facts. It predicts dismal success for skeptics trying to get good information across in the face of active opposition.

In my case, knowing that a small group of scientists had questions about the scanners, added in with my doctor’s advice, played a big role in my musings over flying.  What I forgot was that a “thinking out loud” exploratory post about my thought process before stepping on a plane isn’t just a conversation that I have with myself–other people read it. And rightly call me out when I get details wrong.

Check out this brand new paper from the American Medical Association about the risks of airport full body scanning.  Later this week, I’ll post an interview with a health Physicist to discuss the different types of radiation, and how they affect humans.

And now I’m going to go watch one of my favorite radiation disaster movies, THEM.



Bug_girl has a PhD in Entomology, and is a pointy-headed former academic living in Ohio. She is obsessed with insects, but otherwise perfectly normal. Really! If you want a daily stream of cool info about bugs, follow her Facebook page or find her on Twitter.

Related Articles


  1. One thing that bothered me about this study is that the dosage level was based on this NIST study. The study had the researcher set up a scanner and operate it, which does not necessarily compare with real-world dosage because even if the operator is a trained radiological technician, they can still make mistakes.

    And if the operators are front-line TSA agents? There are many accounts of them not doing their job or doing it improperly.

    However, if they’re operated and maintained the way they should be, it seems that the risk (say, compared to flying) is negligible.

  2. The “solution” is NOT more and better training.

    The solution is to go back to airlines providing their own security. It was good enough that terrorists had to resort to bringing aboard box knives because they couldn’t do any better. Now that we know how to counter the box knife threat (locked pilot cabins), we should be at least as safe as we were before. Which was pretty darn safe.

  3. jrpoewll–> whoever is doing the security will need to be trained in how to sensitively deal with people who are different. And that isn’t going to change.

  4. @MaxH: I agree with you that I’m not terribly confident that the people operating the machine actually know more about it than “turn this knob on,” and in my initial article I cited some similar misbehavior.

    But–if we are going to worry about human error, doesn’t that make the *entire world* inherently unsafe? ;p

  5. @bug_girl: Sure, and the NYT article talks about trained technicians overradiating patients, so there’s no guarantee, but I’d feel a lot more confident having someone who is trained just to operate a medical device operate the scanner. Even though perception of risk != actual risk, I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume that someone with more training in a task might be better at it. (Even if I can’t readily cite a study for that. :-p )

  6. The argument I’ve seen goes like this:
    1) The argument from total radiation dose isn’t valid, as the radiation from the scanners deposits its energy exclusively in the skin, so the skin is subject to a much higher dose, and is particularly prone to cancer.
    2) Even accounting for (1), the risk of dying because of the scan is very small – BUT the odds of the scanner saving your life by catching a terrorist is so small that the odds are comparable. So why spend billions of dollars on something that doesn’t have a net benefit in lives saved?

    I don’t have the knowledge to assess part 1 of the argument. However my opinion is that the benefit of the machines is very small, and the costs in money and privacy is very large, so they should not be used anyhow.

    I don’t live in the USA or UK, but for the last 6 years or so I have a policy that I will not go to those countries because of their terrorist paranoia.

  7. It’s theater. The more uncomfortable and demeaning it is, the more power it has to convince people that it’s making them safer.

    They don’t even screen all the baggage. The guys working at the airport McDonalds don’t receive serious screening on the way in. The fact is, there isn’t some impermeable layer protecting you.

    But if the TSA makes you uncomfortable, that will prevent a worse fate. And don’t step on a crack, that can break your mother’s back.

  8. 1 in 120,864 people die from being “bitten /or struck/ by a dog?”

    Are there people out there endangering the lives of others by carelessly throwing their dogs about?

    Are there people out there, going around swinging their dogs around in the air by their tails in crowded places?

    (If so, these practices simply have to stop!!! ;-)

  9. @Filias Cupio: I tend to think the scanners are “security theater” as well; but they are also becoming impossible to avoid if you fly.

    Are you really expecting a government to make choices based on cost effectiveness? :p

  10. @jrpowell: The airlines just contracted out their airport security, anyway. That’s just a “loop,” so to speak. You end up with essentially the same people in different uniforms. (Spent 25 years in the airlines and was involved in airport security).
    There is some truth to the charge of “security theatre.” The best that any security can do (and likely to be accepted by the US public) is stop determined amateurs.
    I do wish the TSA would convene panels of people with disabilities and victims of various kinds of traumas to discuss some of these problems.

  11. to try and come up with some solutions for people in special situations like those you mentioned.

    a) have a special line and room, closed from the rest of the crowd, with trained employees that handle this as gently as possible, never eliminating the discomfort completely but minimizing it as much as possible

    b) have a super security pass for people in those situations, something you have to apply for with your local authorities + doctor + psychiatrist + federal government, and with this badge, with your name and a very rough description of the anomaly that would instead of having them escorted to the side where they get patted down physically and asked to remove this and show that, the employee checks with a supervisor who green lights or if suspicious asks for a specially trained employee to come and assist with fulfilling the required security check away from prying eyes of other travelers/regular employees.

    the problem will never go away, and it will always be a certain amount of stress and anxiety involved for people in these situations, but if they want to fly, they’ll need to accept this discomfort.

    some people have a fear of flying, some fear of closed spaces, some of germs and infections in commuter vehicles, what option do these people have?

    live with it or drive/sail i guess, i consider it a lucky break that i sleep like a baby in planes even with crying children in the row in front of me, no discomfort with being padded down and the thought of someone seeing me with some see-through clothes detection machine doesn’t bother me in the least, and i guess most people share one or more of my lucky traits, others have a tougher existence when it comes to flying.

    and then there are people that have no access to clean water and are sold into sexual slavery, having a problem with flying isn’t that high on my list of things to fix, it’s on the list, but it’s pretty far down.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to top button