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November 16, 2011

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Europe rules on airport body scanners to ensure passengers’ health and safety

The European Union has adopted a new legal framework on the use of airport security scanners to safeguard citizens’ health and safety.

The new legislation allows Member States to replace current security systems with body scanners that do not use x-ray technology – which emit enough radiation to theoretically damage DNA and cause cancer – but rather millimetre-wave scanners, which use low-energy radio waves. It also ensures the uniform application of security rules at all airports and provides strict and mandatory safeguards to ensure compliance with fundamental rights and the protection of health.

Member States do not have to deploy security scanners but if they do decide to use them, they will have to comply with the operational conditions and performance standards now set at European level.

Several EU countries, including the UK, have been trialling security scanners since a passenger attempted to blow up a plane travelling between Amsterdam and the US on Christmas Day 2009 with plastic explosives hidden in his underwear.

However, the introduction of the scanners – which create a contour image of the subject’s body and anything underneath their clothes – has been controversial, mainly because of privacy concerns but also because of health fears. There is disagreement in scientific circles over the level of radiation dosages delivered by the scans, and parents of young children, as well as frequent flyers, pregnant women and those predisposed to developing certain types of cancer, have all queried their safety.

Under the new EU legislation, the use of security scanners is only allowed in accordance with minimum conditions, such as, for example: the machines shall not store, retain, copy, print, or retrieve images; any unauthorised access and use of the images is prohibited and shall be prevented; and passengers must be given the right to opt out of being scanned and be subject to an alternative method of screening, such as a ‘pat down’.

The EU commissioner responsible for transport, Siim Kallas, said: “Security scanners are not a panacea but they do offer a real possibility to reinforce passenger security. They are a valuable alternative to existing screening methods and are very efficient in detecting both metallic and non-metallic objects. Where this new 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.”

Earlier this year, researchers at the University of California determined that the radiation doses emitted by full body scanners used in airports are equivalent to three to nine minutes of the radiation received through normal daily living. Furthermore, since flying itself increases exposure to ionising radiation, the scan will contribute less than 1 per cent of the dose a flyer will receive from exposure to cosmic rays at high altitudes.

Consequently, they concluded that the cancer risks would be “extremely small”, even among frequent flyers.

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12 years ago

Anyone who flies and has nothing to hide has clearly nothing to fear from this ruling, or from the scanners that we will soon see in use. I for one welcome this progress. Its just a pity similar progress cannot be made in legislating for the likes of drug and alcohol testing in the workplace.