Healthcare News & Insights

Should FDA have looked into TSA’s use of back-scatter devices?

A recent report indicates that the feds implemented controversial back-scatter X-rays throughout airports despite legitimate safety concerns from experts on radiation and public health issues.

The report, a joint effort of ProPublica and PBS NewsHour notes that the machines were approved and deemed “safe” by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which is solely concerned with security, instead of an agency such as the FDA, which has a focus on medical issues and public health. Because the machines aren’t medical devices, they aren’t subject to the more intense regulation that exist for similar diagnostic machines and devices.

It’s not a small issue: The scanners are expected to be in use in every U.S. airport by 2014.

The investigation by ProPublica and PBS found that radiation experts are still worried about the actual cancer risk travelers would face from repeated scans by the devices. For instance, a radiologist at University of San Francisco said that over the lifetime of a year’s worth of airline passengers, the emissions from the machines would likely cause six cancers.

Given current rates of cancer in the U.S., that’s not a significant risk, but it’s still  a risk taken on with little to no benefit for the traveler. As a rule, medical professionals don’t subject patients to radiation unless there’s a clear medical benefit, such as viewing a potentially cancerous tumor, or targeting treatment. In line at the airport, there is no such benefit, and many experts — and members of the general public — are skeptical that the perceived security benefit is enough to justify even a minimal increase in the risk of developing cancer.

In the wake of the report, TSA Administrator John Pistole initially agreed to a request from the Senate to have a new independent study of the devices’ safety conducted — but he has since told the Senate that he received a new draft report that makes such a study unnecessary.

According to ProPublica, a summary of the draft report focus on the maintenance and monitoring of the back-scatter machines.

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