The inconvenience of unloading a carry-on bag and removing pieces of clothing at airport security is never fun, but it’s a necessary evil. For our own safety, we go through these airport security scanners every time we fly. Have you wondered how they work and are there health risks attached? Before I hop my next flight, I decided to find out.

How do Airport Security Scanners Work?

Airport security scanners are intended to inspect two things: luggage or carry-on items as well as the people carrying them.

The luggage scan is an x-ray scanner that uses low doses of radiation.

Full body human scans can be one of two different types:

  • Millimeter wave security system
  • Backscatter machine

Millimeter machines use radio waves/electromagnetic waves over a person to produce 3D images. These non-ionizing radiation machines fall into the same category as cell phones, microwave ovens, and WIFI.

Backscatter x-rays use ionizing radiation and create 2D body images.

How Safe are Security Scanners?

For most inanimate items passing through x-ray luggage scanners, the scan’s safety is irrelevant. However, what about food? If you like to bring snacks from home, you’ll have to pass them through this scan. According to a Mayo Clinic health physicist, the X-rayed food is safe and lower in radiation than sources used in food irradiation manufacturing facilities.

As for human scan millimeter machines, the FDA assures that radio waves “comply with the limits set in the applicable national non-ionizing radiation safety standard and cause no known adverse health effects.” Well, maybe, though there are still questions about the safety of microwaves and cell phones.

In very high amounts, the ionizing radiation used in backscatter x-rays can cause burns and could kill. Radiation can damage DNA and lead to cancer, however, airport scanners use very low dose x-rays and we are assured they are safe. Though I’m a natural skeptic, there is one thing that makes me believe the safety claims. According to the TSA and FDA, pregnant women are also assured backscatter scanners are safe to pass through. In fact, the act of traveling on the plane itself exposes us to higher levels of radioactivity from space than does passing through security scanners.

As a way of measuring levels, this article from Harvard Medical School compares the cancer risk of all fliers, frequent fliers and 5-year old frequent fliers.

The same article reports that approximately half the American airport body scanners are millimeter wave types and half are backscatter types.

What’s New in Airport Security Scans?

Continued safety questions about backscatter x-rays may soon be a mute point. These scanners are in the process of being replaced by millimeter scanners.

As for luggage scans, we may soon be able to keep laptops and liquids in our carry-on as the bag goes through security checkpoints. Airports are starting to introduce Computed Tomography (CT) scanners that offer 3D views of luggage contents. This could make that dreaded trip through airport security scanners a little easier to bear!

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