Are TSA's New Full Body Scanners Safe For Kids?

Backscatter Advanced Imaging Technology
Backscatter Advanced Imaging Technology

There has been a lot of news lately about the new Backscatter body imaging device (also called Advanced Imaging Technology) that TSA is deploying in airports just in time for Thanksgiving. The machine uses X-ray technology to capture an image of your naked body. Essentially, it lets agents see through your clothing without letting any other passengers see the picture. In part because of privacy concerns about the new devices, travelers can opt out of using this new type of scanner, opting for an invasive pat-down procedure instead.

There's something else I think parents need to be concerned about too - are these devices safe for our children? Each time you pass through the device, a small amount of radiation is emitted and focused primarily on your skin. A new letter of concern from University of California-San Francisco professors points out that the risks to babies, children, and pregnant women are not fully understood. While the government has already issued a response, I've seen nothing specific to these special populations.

Images from Backscatter Full Body Imaging Device
Images from Backscatter Full Body Imaging Device

Until the radiation risks are understood, my husband and I have decided to opt-out of using the new Backscatter devices. The long term health effects are just too concerning. Instead, we'll arrive at the airport a little early and subject the whole family to a full body patdown that now includes having an agent touch your genital area. Obviously this was a very tough decision for us, and not one I'm comfortable with. I'm not sure yet how I'll be explaining the pat down to my kids. I'll probably start by getting the agent to explain to all of us exactly what the kids will experience. I'm hopeful that they'll receive a milder version of the adult pat-down or no pat down at all. I guess we'll proceed from there.

We will be flying again soon, and I'll be sure to tell you exactly how it goes.

Reader Question: What do you think? Would you send your kids through the backscatter device? Would you subject them to a pat down? How would you explain the pat down to your kids?

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  1. Andrea on November 12, 2010 at 12:18 a.m.

    In the UK no one under the age of 18 is allowed to use these machines, although I believe that is more because of the image than the radiation risk. My feeling, and we travel to the UK often with our son, is that if an entire country is not okay with it then we should not be either. And as a pregnant woman I will opt out of it regardless. The whole thing needs to be reevaluated in my opinion.

  2. Zablon Mukuba on November 12, 2010 at 12:30 a.m.

    there is a lot of buzz about this TSA scanners, i have heard the pros and the cons but no one said the effects it could have to kids, if its harmful to children then i will avoid them

  3. Leah on November 12, 2010 at 4:31 a.m.

    This is so incredibly frustrating. Given how the TSA is so reactionary more for "security theater" than actual safety, I hate that anyone who wants to fly has to go through this. I completely agree with Bruce Schneier on the security machine being useless, and honestly I keep expecting people to start protesting and revolting but it seems that each new development (oz limits and ziplocs, removing shoes, x ray machines, etc) simply prepares us to take the next, more severe development without complaining much. But sadly everyone is busy (myself included!) and everyone wants to get where they're going, and the TSA has too much power but no one in politics will touch it for fear of looking soft on terrorism. I have no solutions, it is just depressing.

  4. GBK Gwyneth on November 12, 2010 at 7:20 a.m.

    Leah - I so agree with you. My mom has had two of these "patdowns" already and is miserable about it. (Since she has a hip replacement, she sets off the machine every time she goes through security.) She's contacted everyone she can think of who might have the power to end it.

  5. Deborah on November 12, 2010 at 9:27 a.m.

    I also agree with Leah.
    The scanners don't make flying any safer. It's just Security Theater. These scanners are an invasion of my privacy as well, and potentially harmful. If I fly, I will request the patdown for me and my 1 year old son. I will also request that the pat-downs be down in public area (not the private room option), so others can see.
    As embarrasing as it is, a pat-down won't hurt us.
    Maybe TSA will back off on their ridiculous regulations if people complain about seeing a 1 year old child experience a intrusive pat-down. This whole full body scanner idea is frustating and needs to ended.

  6. KC on November 12, 2010 at 9:57 a.m.

    I recently found myself in the situation where it was required that I go through the scanner. I refused (everywhere there are signs saying that it is 'optional'). The gentleman then forcefully 'encouraged' me to go through. I again refused. Not once did he ask why. To be honest I was quite surprised that everyone was simply going through and that I seemed to be 'the only trouble-maker' in the busy airport.
    He made me stand to the side of the machine (where I edged away as far as possible) and frowned at me repeatedly.
    After 5 or so minutes of waiting they waved me through the regular way and asked me to stand on their special mat with footprints to indicate where I should stand (legs spread). What followed was actually laughable.
    I have since spoken to others and the script seems to be the same every time. The insistence that the pat down is very intrusive, the suggestion that we do this in a private room, even down to the whole 'gotta get new gloves' thing. It's an intimidation thing. Clearly they have been trained to follow the script.
    I travel frequently and the pat down was _still_ tame compared to most countries that I have gone through (ummm.... extremely tame in comparison). The whole 'meet resistance' thing was so fast that I am not sure it really even happened. ;-) I assure you, they are not feeling you up. To be clear, they probably _hate_ it when someone refuses to go through the scanner. They don't want to touch anyone's 'private parts'.
    I joked around with her, telling her that my gyn was way more thorough.
    Take the pat-down - allow yourself more time through security. Put a smile of your face and enjoy the human contact. ;-)
    To be honest, the pat-down is finally coming close to what most of the rest of the world does. I'm glad.
    PS - when traveling with kids (3 & 4yrs), we simply explained to them that the security officers were going to gently pat them down because sometimes silly people try to hide stuff under their clothes. _We_ know that there is nothing there but it's the only way that they know how to check... etc. Honestly, the kids take it way better than we adults do. And ultimately there is nothing malicious about the pat down.

  7. Debbie on November 12, 2010 at 9:58 a.m.

    As a purely practical matter, if enough people refuse to use the backscatter machines, TSA will have to change the policy - it would simply be too expensive to do such a detailed pat-down of every passenger. And the airlines will start putting pressure on the government if those lines get too out of hand.

  8. Kimberly on November 12, 2010 at 12:14 p.m.

    It's not just the health risk but the whole TSA Experience could be downright awful to everyone especially the children=(

  9. Peyman on November 12, 2010 at 12:20 p.m.

    Here's a video from TSA showing the machines and they work:

  10. Leah on November 12, 2010 at 2:38 p.m.

    That's a good point, Debbie, though the crusty cranky libertarian in me thinks that instead of gving up they'd just use it as an excuse to hire more TSA agents with our tax money... ;-)

  11. GBK Gwyneth on November 12, 2010 at 3:06 p.m.

    I'm not buying KC's argument that the invasive patdowns are a good thing. I think that they are highly reactionary and not going to do anything to stop those determined to cause harm.

    And for people like me, my mom, abuse victims and the rest, being "felt up" by a TSA agent is not something we can smile at and accept. It is a violation of our human rights. We are given the choice of being violated in one of two different ways -- harmful xrays or genital groping.

    I'm not only ready to take the train. I'm ready to leave this country and never fly through here again.

  12. missionarymomma on November 12, 2010 at 6:54 p.m.

    We are an Amish Mennonite family with 8 young children. We fly a lot for missions work. We are VERY uncomfortable and feel violated in the extreme by both ideas. We do not want to put our small children through the machines. We also do NOT want them to be put through a pat down. Our children have only known modesty and that especially includes NOT allowing strangers to touch their body.

  13. Rebekah on November 13, 2010 at midnight

    I'm with missionarymommy. I feel like violated by either of these ideas. I don't want to put myself or either of my daughters (5 yrs and 6mo) through this. Like the Atlantic writer said, a smart terrorist is going to get it done. We have rights. But what are we supposed to do? I'd enjoy a train excursion but I can't do that the few times I can manage to get back east to visit family.

  14. Marianne Schwab on November 13, 2010 at 2:24 p.m.

    I feel like I've been a LONE voice in the crusade against these Body Scanners since my first encounter with it two years ago at the then brand new Indianapolis airport. I was subjected to the machine on a random check which really peeved me. I'm so glad to see the public movement starting - thank you commercial pilots! I find both options completely humiliating (see you naked x-rays & groping pat downs) and scanners are more for, as Leah termed, "security theater," versus our safety. Keep protesting. These Body Scanners are a "Tea in Boston Harbor" sort of thing that EVERYONE needs to speak out against and protest - not just for our health, but our civil rights. Final case and point, El Al airlines has a flawless safety record with terrorism without employing Body Scanners. Our TSA should be trained by El Al, not the yo-yo's in "security theater."

  15. Jennifer on November 14, 2010 at 9:09 a.m.

    If you opt out of backscatter, and I understand why one should, prepare to be groped.

    The pilots who are protesting not being exempt from the new body scanners have a point, in that they have to be exposed to the x=rays more often than most. However, we could all consider following their lead.

  16. SMC on November 15, 2010 at 11:20 a.m.

    Has anyone here gone through the backscatter while traveling w/their children? I'm still nervous about mine (not quite 4) going through the x-ray without touching the sides, although now they have her walk through 1st and I follow quickly. If you (or a child) touched the backscatter machine while walking through, does it cause a problem? Can anyone comment on their experience with a child who is too young to be carried if you all went through it? Not looking forward to going through it mind you... Thanks in advance.

  17. xdrx on November 15, 2010 at 11:41 a.m.

    As a radiation oncologist, I can assure you that the total skin radiation treatment which you are giving the children, has not been studied for its effects longterm. The chest x-ray radiation dose equvilance does not apply since the ENTIRE SKIN is getting subjected to this dose. Unfortunately the safety/non-safety of this will be proven only after decades.

  18. Concerned grandmother on November 15, 2010 at 12:41 p.m.

    Whatever happened to telling your children "DON'T EVER let a stranger touch you!". I also agree with those who have been subject to abuse as children and adults this would be very traumatic

  19. Kara on November 15, 2010 at 4:50 p.m.

    Freaking out because my kids are flying w/o me (w/ their grandmother) soon. I believe I'll suggest the Backscatter vs. the pat-down (if indeed ALL pat-downs are "enhanced" now -- I don't know if they are?). I do NOT NOT NOT want an icky TSA person touching my tween-age daughter. I don't care if she is the same gender. NOT COOL.

  20. Heather on November 16, 2010 at 8:17 p.m.

    Images of naked children are kiddie porn. Period.
    Having your privates touched without cause is sexual assault. Period.
    I don't understand why the public is kicking up more of a fuss over the fact that the government is BREAKING IT'S OWN LAWS.
    If someone is hellbent on blowing up a plane, they will do it, scans or no scans. Gropes or no gropes.
    I'll be driving, training, or bussing until the government upholds it's own laws.

  21. Elizabeth on November 17, 2010 at 4:24 p.m.

    I'm a mom of a toddler and 4 months pregnant, and I fly at least twice a month. And let me assure you neither my daughter nor I will be going through the backscatter machines any time soon. I'm basing my decision on instinct more than anything else. And the more I read about them, or should I say don't read as there doesn't seem to be any information about the effects on children or pregnant women, the more likely I am to opt for the pat down.

  22. Erin on November 18, 2010 at 7:09 a.m.

    I think I am one of the few people who is 100% okay with the pat downs. My son is 11 months. I would rather him be pat down than exposed to radiation. We're flying in a few weeks. When you live in Hawaii, there isn't much choice. The current system has proven itself to be flawed. Yes, I would like the government to find another way, so that everyone is comfortable, but I don't have any other ideas either. I applaud them for trying to keep my family safe!

  23. Sal Ignab on November 19, 2010 at 3:06 p.m.

    As a parent, I am really frustrated with this decision. Even if we wanted to use the backscatter, our 3 year olds aren't going to stand still in a box for 1 second, nevermind 30. If we select the groping, we have to somehow explain that it's OK for this stranger to touch them, but anybody else would be thrown in prison or a Catholic seminary. And they're too big to run through the x-ray. I know there must be a better solution, I just don't know what it is.

  24. Anthony King on November 20, 2010 at 6:46 p.m.

    I would suffer one of these indignities to visit relatives over the holidays, but I have a four year old who, like many four year olds, is initially very shy in new situations and around stranger. There is no way he would accept being touched by a stranger, and I will not betray his confidence by forcing him to suffer this unreasonable violation. This treatment would have been rightly understood as tyranny when the American citizenry still had a backbone.

  25. Ann on November 21, 2010 at 4:29 p.m.

    I will not pose naked, nor will I let my son pose naked to fly. I also will not be groped and most importantly, there is NO WAY I will let anyone touch my sons crotch! Every Christmas we fly up to MI from FL, this year, we are driving. The smelly feet/athletes foot smell was at the security theater was getting to me anyway.