Europe Bans X-Ray Body Scanners Used at U.S. Airports


Written by Michael Grabell, ProPublica

The European Union on Monday prohibited the use of X-ray body scanners in European airports, parting ways with the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, which has deployed hundreds of the scanners as a way to screen millions of airline passengers for explosives hidden under clothing.

The European Commission, which enforces common policies of the EU’s 27 member countries, adopted the rule “in order not to risk jeopardizing citizens’ health and safety.”

As a ProPublica/PBS NewsHour investigation detailed earlier this month, X-ray body scanners use ionizing radiation, a form of energy that has been shown to damage DNA and cause cancer. Although the amount of radiation is extremely low, equivalent to the radiation a person would receive in a few minutes of flying, several research studies have concluded that a small number of cancer cases would result from scanning hundreds of millions of passengers a year.

European countries will be allowed to use an alternative body scanner, on that relies on radio frequency waves, which have not been linked to cancer. The TSA has also deployed hundreds of those machines – known as millimeter-wave scanners – in U.S. airports. But unlike Europe, it has decided to deploy both types of scanners.

The TSA would not comment specifically on the EU’s decision. But in a statement, TSA spokesman Mike McCarthy said, “As one of our many layers of security, TSA deploys the most advanced technology available to provide the best opportunity to detect dangerous items, such as explosives.

“We rigorously test our technology to ensure it meets our high detection and safety standards before it is placed in airports,” he continued. “Since January 2010, advanced imaging technology has detected more than 300 dangerous or illegal items on passengers in U.S. airports nationwide.”

Body scanners have been controversial in the United States since they were first deployed in prisons in the late 1990s and then in airports for tests after 9/11. Most of the controversy has focused on privacy because the machines can produce graphic images. But the manufacturers have since installed privacy filters.

As the TSA began deploying hundreds of body scanners after the failed underwear bombing on Christmas Day 2009, several scientists began to raise concerns about the health risks of the X-ray scanner, noting that even low levels of radiation would increase the risk of cancer.

As part of our investigation, ProPublica surveyed foreign countries’ security policies and found that only a few nations used the X-ray scanner. The United Kingdom uses them but only for secondary screening, such as when a passenger triggers the metal detector or raises suspicion.

Under the new European Commission policy, the U.K. will be allowed to complete a trial of the X-ray scanners but not to deploy them on a permanent basis when the trial ends, said Helen Kearns, spokeswoman for the European transport commissioner, Siim Kallas.

“These new rules ensure that where this technology is used it will be covered by EU-wide standards on detection capability as well as strict safeguards to protect health and fundamental rights,” Kallas said.

Five-hundred body scanners, split about evenly between the two technologies, are deployed in U.S. airports. The X-ray scanner, or backscatter, which looks like two large blue boxes, is used at major airports, including Los Angeles International Airport, John F. Kennedy in New York and Chicago’s O’Hare. The millimeter-wave scanner, which looks like a round glass booth, is used in San Francisco, Atlanta and Dallas.

Within three years, the TSA plans to deploy 1,800 backscatter and millimeter-wave scanners, covering nearly every domestic airport security lane. The TSA has not yet released details on the exact breakdown.

This post was originally published by ProPublica.


Related Stories:

TSA Agent Leaving “Get Your Freak On” Note Suspended

Airport Full Body Radiation Tests Flawed: TSA to Re-Test

TSA Denies Asking Passenger to Remove Adult Diaper


Photo from add1sunvia flickr


Terry V.
Terry V5 years ago


Sheri Schongold
Sheri Schongold5 years ago

I don't understand why Israel has the strictest laws about flying and checking them before boarding (they have not had any "incidents") and the rest of the world can't adopt their regulations and be as adaptive to them as the Israelis are.

Catherine D.
Catherine D5 years ago

Common sense is alive and well in the EU!! Hooray!!!

Eventually, the People of the USA will wake up and demand the TSA be dismantled.

Someone cute and adorable.......or someone wealthy and influential, will likely need to die a hideous death at the hands of a TSA thug.

Some terrified slave wearing a pacemaker will go through a scanner, and collapse and die from a cardiac arrhythmia in flight.

It would take something like that to turn the tide of complacency in this country.

Mary D.
Mary D6 years ago

I am totally against these scanners. My feeling is that if someone is going to try to sabotage an airplane, they may not succeed, but then again they might. However, of all the billions of dollars spent on those contraptions, no one has ever been caught trying to take a bomb onto an airplane. They can cause cancer, they deliberately try to humiliate paying customers, they raise ticket prices, and scare the wits out of young children. Furthermore, it raises the national debt, which is something we certainly don't need. Is preventing imaginary bomb threats worth it?

Whenever I can afford the time, I'll drive a car or take the train. I hope that myriads of American travelers opt for that as well. There should be a boycott of airline travel to show that we don't like being treated like cattle or, even worse, criminals.

Lucy Hanouille
Lucy E6 years ago

"I don't know why everybody is running to buy these expensive and useless machines, I can overcome the body scanners with enough explosives to bring down a Boeing 747. That's why we haven't put them in our airport.” ~ Rafi Sela, former chief of security, Israel Airport Authority.

Contrary to what some people think, Israel does not use racial profiling to sort out passengers. They use behavioral profiling and they are very good at it. I wonder what it is that keeps the US from learning their methods and employing them. Isn't Israel supposed to be our ally?

Sarah Metcalf
Sarah M6 years ago

Cool. At least some people have some sense.

Silvia G.
Silvia G6 years ago

I'm happy they're banned in EU but they should be banned everywhere!!

Annmari Lundin
Annmari L6 years ago

The Old World sets another example of caring for the people (banning GMOs are another). Take note, USA!

Mo Va
Mo Va6 years ago

Need to ban the arrogant TSA anywhere in USA. USA does not care about the common people's health by using radiation xray to scan travelers.. What a shame on USA....

heather g.
heather g6 years ago

What disturbs me is that all the "specialists" disagree about how dangerous scanners are. This makes it difficult to form an opinion when scientists disagree on the danger. Read more @
The Smart Meters also cause damage to our health.
Consider all the toxins and chemicals that are fed to us in our food and consumer products.
The only thing I know is that government officials do not care one iota for the public and its health !