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Are Airport Body Scanners Safe When Pregnant?

Dianna Graveman |23, January 2012


If you plan to take a trip while you are pregnant, you have probably given some thought to the safety of airport body scanners, the latest technology TSA (Transportation Security Administration) uses to screen passengers and detect hidden weapons, explosives, or other dangerous items. In the years since 2001, airport security has understandably undergone changes and upgrades, as the U.S. government strives to keep citizens safe on ground and in the air. But we women have been warned for generations about exposing ourselves to x-rays during pregnancy--even donning lead aprons during routine dental checkups. Why should we now assume that a body scanner that emits x-ray beams is safe?

How do they work?

TSA is now using two types of scanner technology in the United States: millimeter wave and backscatter. Approximately 540 scanners are in place at more than 100 airports. According to the TSA website, a passenger passing through a body scanner that uses backscatter technology will be exposed to an amount of radiation equal to flying in an airplane for about two minutes. With a millimeter wave scanner, the passenger will be exposed to thousands of times less energy than when making a cell phone call.

TSA explains further: "Advanced imaging technology screening is safe for all passengers, including children, pregnant women, and individuals with medical implants." However, the site also states that although the technology meets all national health and safety standards, and that passenger privacy is ensured because of the anonymity of each image, "advanced imaging technology screening is optional for all passengers."

Millimeter wave technology bounces electromagnetic waves off a passenger's body to create a generic image, according to TSA. The technology meets all known national and international health and safety standards and emits a thousand times less energy than the international limits. Although these scanners haven't been widely studied, most experts believe the radio waves are not harmful. In fact, TSA reports that we ourselves generate millimeter wave energy and that we are already exposed to millimeter waves every day.

Much more controversial is the backscatter technology, which projects low-level x-ray beams over the body and reflects a more realistic image of the body on a monitor, raising concerns about privacy. But according to Dr. Andrew J. Einstein, director of cardiac CT research at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City, the technology is safe. In a 2010 article for, he states that no evidence supports an increased risk of miscarriage or abnormalities from the scanners ("Airport Full Body Scanners Pose No Health Threat," July 9, 2010). "A pregnant woman will receive much more radiation from cosmic rays she is exposed to while flying than from passing through a scanner in the airport," he said.

According to TSA, backscatter technology has been evaluated and found to be safe by the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH), the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST), and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL).

Homeland Security, Office of Health Affairs states that backscatter systems must conform to a standard that limits the annual effective dose to individuals who are screened. The limit is set for the general public to include pregnant women, children, and people who are receiving radiation treatment for illnesses.

In other words, according to Homeland Security, body scanners are safe .

Find out more:

You can find more information about each type of scanner, as well as a list of airports in the United States that use them, on the TSA website ( Your health care provider may have an opinion about use of the scanners, so check with him or her if you have concerns. And remember: You have the right to refuse the scan. TSA encourages any passenger who is uncomfortable with the scan to request a pat-down instead. If you are unsure and feel the body scan will cause you to worry for the remainder of your pregnancy, it might be best to avoid it.

Transportation Security Administration (
Homeland Security/Office of Health Affairs ( ("Airport Full Body Scanners Pose No Health Threat," Jan. 9, 2010)

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