Europe Bans Airport X-Ray Scanners that U.S. Still Uses

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Michael Nagle / Getty Images

A TSA officer stands next to a backscatter body scanner at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City.

The European Commission adopted new rules Nov. 14 regarding X-ray, or backscatter, body scanners at all airports in Europe. A press release ordered members of the European Union to remove X-ray scanners from its airports to avoid risking “citizens’ health and safety.” The release does not, however, cite specific reasons for the safety concern. But the news does bring into question the continued use of the very same X-ray scanners in U.S. airports.

While the Transportation Security Administration also employs millimeter-wave scanners in U.S. airports, X-ray scanners are the ones that have received more criticism from public-safety advocates. Although the TSA did not respond to the European ruling, it has repeatedly defended the safety and efficacy of both kinds of scanners. According to studies cited on the TSA’s website, X-ray scanners expose passengers to the same amount of radiation as two minutes of flying on an airplane. While it is true that the amount of radiation exposure from X-ray machines is very low, several studies have shown that a small number of cancer cases could result from scanning millions of passengers every year. (The TSA has also vigorously responded to these various findings.)

Some critics of the scanners say that any small amount of cancer is too much to tolerate. Although the TSA doesn’t show signs of budging on the use of X-ray scanners, Europe will instead use machines that rely on radio frequency waves, which have not been linked to cancer.

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