Ending a busy and exciting week’s trip to the Pacific Northwest, I checked in at the airport, exhausted and ready to take the red-eye home. As I deposited my belongings on the conveyor belt to be x-rayed, I saw that everyone was being asked to go through a full body scanner, in this case a Millimeter Wave Scanner, which I knew worked by actively hitting the body with radio-frequency energy to produce an image.
“I’d prefer not to go through it”
“It’s not an x-ray scanner, Ma’am, it’s perfectly safe.”
“Doesn’t it use RF technology?”
Surprised look. “Yes, but it’s less than you get from your cell phone.”
“Well I don’t use my cell phone very much.”
“Ok, we can do a manual pat down but we don’t have a female agent here right now so you’re going to have to wait.”
“Do I have to have a female agent?”
“Yes.”They asked me to wait right in front of the machine I didn’t want to walk through. I asked if I could move away to lean against the unused conveyor belt to the left, about 10 feet away, and I was kindly granted permission to do so despite my wayward disruption of the security process. As I moved away, did I hear the agent mutter something about how he had to stand next to the dang thing all day?
After five minutes that felt like twenty a friendly female security agent showed up and led me to the pat down zone. (Why is it assumed to be okay to be patted down by a female anyway if you are a female? What if I was a lesbian, would it still be more appropriate to be patted down by someone of the same sex? Who were the prudes sitting around making these decisions anyway? Where are the gender neutral robots who will carry out an “enhanced pat down” without creating these awkward sexual conundrums?) My security agent asked me if I was feeling okay, presumably because of my weary sighing. I was mentally prepared to be patted down, no big deal. She told me to hold my arms out and then began her full body search of me with a chipper chant that I was most definitely not prepared for:“I’m going to use the backs of my hands to pat your breasts.” “I’m going to use the palms of my hands to pat your waist.” “I’m going to use my fingers to check the inside of your waist band.” “I’m going to use the backs of my hands to pat your buttocks.” “I’m going to use the palms of my hands to pat your thighs…”
And on and on went the anatomy lesson…
Even though I’m not particularly squeamish about physical contact with strangers (after 15 years in Paris, I’d better not be), the agent’s narration of the search made it weirdly embarrassing. Understandably, most people are somewhat uncomfortable being groped by strangers, but does an exacting verbal description of what’s coming next really make it more comfortable?
While I’d been waiting for my pat down I watched 20 people or so go through the scanner with no qualms or questions. I made a mental note to myself to print something up to bring with me next time to explain my conscientious objections. In the meantime, let me get them off my chest (with the backs of my hands!) here:
As the 1st security agent acknowledged, the technology used by these scanners is the same kind of technology used by my cell phone, radiofrequency or microwave radiation.
“Neither cell phones nor cell towers have been conclusively linked to increased risks of cancer, but most researchers and government agencies agree that more research on cell phones is needed, especially with regard to long-term use and use among children“ – The American Cancer Society
“Q. Is imaging technology safe? A. Backscatter technology was evaluated 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). Millimeter wave imaging technology meets all known national and international health and safety standards. In fact, the energy emitted by millimeter wave technology is 1000 times less than the international limits and guidelines.” – TSA
Hmm. So you tested Backscatter technology and told us it was safe, but you didn’t even test Millimeter wave imaging technology? Ok…
“Advanced imaging technology screening is safe for all passengers, including children, pregnant women, and individuals with medical implants.” – TSA
So…it’s safe because the amount of energy emitted during the process is lower than national and international standards but you didn’t actually test it to see if it’s safe when used in that way and at those frequencies. And you’re telling us it’s even safe for kids and pregnant women even though you didn’t test it. And how could you have had the time to properly tested it? What are the long-term consequences of yet another form of exposure to RF?
As I leaned against the unmoving conveyor belt, conscientiously objecting and waiting for my “enhanced pat down,” no one waiting to walk through the scanner looked at me with curiosity, scandal, or anything else resembling acknowledgement. Most were probably unaware of what was going on when they walked through the scanner, being aware perhaps of privacy issues but not health issues.