A Euro Scanners Debacle – Just in time for the Olympics (part 1)
SCENIHR, the European Commission’s scientific committee on emerging and newly identified health risks is poised to present its report to the Commission on the possible health risks of using full-body scanners. The future of scanners in Europe as well as our fundamental human rights are in the balance and this report is likely to tip that balance one way or the other. With rumours rife of scanners being installed at the Olympics this year, the stakes are higher than ever.
But can we trust the politicians to get it right this time or will they follow the UK’s lead in whitewashing over the health risks with political loopholes and secretiveness?
In 2006 when the UK’s Heathrow airport first began trials with backscatter (xray) body scanners, the UK Department for Transport claimed that radiation from these devices was incapable of penetrating human skin. They maintained this claim until early 2010 when the country became the first in the world to introduce a no scan-no fly policy. By then the scanners were featured continuously as part of the fervor caused by the underwear bomber and images of body scans donned the pages of every newspaper.
Viewing the images, people began to ask “if the radiation does not penetrate the skin, then why can we see areas of the skeleton on the scan?” The DfT quickly deleted their claim from their FAQs page. Later on, Steven Smith, the inventor if this type if scanner said that radiation absorption in fact played a fundamental role in the image making process.
However, the DfT were not ready to give up on their investment and promoted the idea that the scanners emitted so little radiation that they could not be any kind of threat.
But can we really take their word for it? Is the risk balance between the radiation dose and that of exploding terrorists really that justified?
Let’s take a look at the validity of the claim that body scanners are safe.
Do you trust the UK government?
The DfT’s claim was based on studies apparently undertaken by the Health Protection Agency in which a comparitive analisis concluded that the dose from backscatter scanners is equivalent to that received from cosmic radiation received from one minute of a flight. However, some in the scientific community disagree with the comparison in that the two types of radiation (backscatter and cosmic) act differently on the human body.
It has also recently come to light that the HPA has never actually done any testing on any scanner and their claim that the scanners were safe was based purely on information from a third party. This group has spent the last two years continuously trying to obtain information from the HPA, the DfT and the Health and Safety Executive on who did these apparent tests and what parametres and methodology was employed, but to no avail. The UK blankly refuse to reveal the source of their claim and therefore its validity and the impartiality of the third party is impossible to verify. Simply said, the DfT’s claim remains unproven.
The European Commission Debacle.
The Euro scanners debate has been raging since 2008 when the European Commission presented a bill to parliament which would create common rules on scanner use. The members of parliament were horrified at the thought of this technology violating the fundamental rights of air passengers and refused to play ball.
When the young fool Abdulmutallab tried to blow up his underpants on a flight to Detroit in 2009, the debate reopened and the EC revamped their pro-scanners legislation plan. It took until summer of 2011 for the EC to present their new scanners bill to parliament which they did through a comitology process. MPs had the chance to vote against the bill, but of course many were absent due to holidays. The bill was not so much as passed, but got through by not being refused.
On the surface, the EC’s rules appear to be an improvement on the previous situation in that they ban the use of backscatter technology (due to health fears) and demand an opt-out option for passengers, but the European Commissioner of Transport, Siim Kallas, showed enormous ineptitude and granted Manchester airport an exception just two days before the new laws came into effect, leaving Manchester to continue using their 19 £150,000 radiation machines.
On top of this, the EC Vice President did not commission SCENIHR (the EC’s science committee) to investigate the health risks of scanner use until after backscatter scanners had been banned. The results of their studies are due to be published this month (April 2012). However, we are no more confident about the objectivity of the SCENIHR results than we are of the UK’s HPA studies. According to recent correspondance between SCENIHR and this group, the science committee, like the HPA, has not done any real testing themselves and have also relied on information from third parties which they refuse to divulge the name of. Nor do they know the parametres of any testing or whether or not those third parties have any stake in the results of testing. Any claim that SCENIHR will therefore remain baseless.
The SCENIHR opinion is expected around end of April. For this work, the SCENIHR did not conduct any experimental studies but relied on data from third parties and modelling work.
Laurent Bontoux, PhD
Principal Administrator – SCENIHR Management Officer
Dear Mr Bontoux
Many thanks for your reply. Would it be possible to obtain a list of names of third parties used in SCENIHR studies on body scanners?
No, this is confidential.
Almost an exact mirror of what the HPA had done.
It was always essential to carry out tests on actual body scanners especially after it was discovered in the US last year that backscatter scanners were emitting 10 times the expected amount of radiation. I find it inconceivable that SCENIHR scientists made no attempt to run tests with a real scanner when only one kilometre from their offices in Brussels, the European Parliament building has 6 Rapiscan backscatter devices abandoned in a basement, paid for by taxpayers and never used.
So, we are back to square one and still do not know if the scanners are really safe.
Prepare to be irradiated at the Olympics this year.
Let’s just review the body scanning technology you will need to look out for with a quick look at the main scanning technologies being sold to airports and entertainment venues this year. As NONE of these machines have been tested by SCENHIR, they look unlikely to tell you as much as we will about them. If SCENIHR’s report to the EC turns out to be in favour of scanner use, we can expect a far greater deployment of all scanner types within the EU in the near future. It recently emerged that the UK government plans to deploy scanners at the Olympic games this year to screen workers entering the event zones. Also, Rapiscan, the main manufacturer of the EU banned backscatter scanners has just been awarded the contract for supplying security screening equipment to the games.
Backscatter scanner (Rapiscan)
This scanner, the most successful on the market, projects a beam of ionising radiation over the body from head to toe. The low-power radiation progressively loses penetrative power as it travels towards its subject. In theory, this gives it enough power to penetrate clothing, but not the whole body. Scientists at the University of California are concerned that this radiation not only penetrates clothing, but also skin and then is “deposited” inside the body and therefore doing untold damage.
Transmission Scanner (Conpass)
The radiation from this scanner is said to be 8 times the strength of the backscatter model and therefore capable of exposing internal organs. Until last year, it was only possible to find this product at high-security prisons and diamond mines. This year, Australia intends to transmission scan selected passengers arriving at Sydney airport for contraband.
Active Millimetre Wave Scanner (L3, Smiths Detection)
Millimetre waves are radio waves which can be found in the range between microwaves and those emitted by your mobile phone. in this device, a scanner rapidly rotates around the subject, gathering below-clothes information and forming a 3-D naked image. While it is generally believed that this type of radiation does not cause cancer, some believe it may agitate existing tumors as well as cause significant problems for pregnant women and those with pacemakers. Chicago O’Hare airport, for example, reportedly has signs warning passengers with pacemakers not to pass through the scanners, and recently a woman with a pacemaker died after she had to pass through a MMw machine between Gaza and Egypt.
The efficiency of this technology has constantly been called into question. The German police called it “useless” and decided to get rid of it. So did the Italian authorities and the British Transport police.