Thursday, April 9, 2015

Are Airport Security Scanners Safe?

I am a big fan of Dr. Andrew Weil. I think a guy who has a medical degree from Harvard and is now the guru for Natural and Alternative Medicine is the kind of healthcare professional I was to listen to. I’ve read many of his books and taken a lot of his advice in the past few decades and I feel as if I live a healthier life because of it. 

In one of my favorite books of his, “Natural Health, Natural Medicine there was an interesting fact I read years ago that I always remember. In Chaper 11, titled “How Not to Get Cancer” he lists sixteen things you can do to protect yourself from getting cancer. The heading of Number Three on the list is “Avoid Exposure to Harmful Radiation”. In this section, he discusses the journey radioactivity and X-rays have taken in western medicine from the 1940s until now, and how much we have learned since the early days (1940s and 1950s) when shoe stores used to X-ray your feet to see how your shoes fit! He goes on to explain how radiation in X-rays leads to cancer by causing malignant transformation of cells, and goes on to mention all sorts of household items that we may not even realize gives off some radiation such as smoke alarms and electronics. But two main bits of advice he mentioned in that section really stuck with me. 1) “There is no such thing as a safe dose of radiation”, and 2) “Do not let doctors and dentists X-ray you without good reason”. 

I thought this was VERY good advice and I go to great lengths to evaluate all the necessary and unnecessary X-rays in my life. EVERY YEAR I have a heated discussion with my dentist about skipping my annual X-rays when it really isn’t necessary. Just because it is covered by insurance, isn’t a good reason to add to my accumulation of radiation. I get dental X-rays every 3 years maximum. The same with other medical X-rays. I can’t say I’ve never had one but I give great thought to whether I really need that CatScan of my head to see if I have a sinus infection (yes, that really happened to me!). Uh, no I didn’t.

So here I am at the Airport watching everyone in the Security line going through this, well, X-ray, called a ProScan and I started to think, “I don’t really want this radiation, do I have to go through?”. The answer, of course, is “No” I don’t have to go through and neither do you. You can “opt-out” of the ProScan line at any airport in America. That sounds like an easy option but TSA agents are not happy about the “opt-out” crowd because it means extra work for them to have to stop what they are doing and come over and pat you down. Many times I have been “punished” by an annoyed TSA agent who has made me and my kids wait for ages before they called someone over to pat us down, just because they were bothered by the fact I did not want to go through the ProScan. Sometimes there was a legitimate wait, like when they needed to find a female TSA Agent (Pat downs have to happen with same sex agents), but usually they just don’t want to do it. While I am waiting for an Agent to come and pat us down, I usually have at least one agent give me a hard time about opting out. They often laugh and say, “You know, there is no radiation in these machines, why don’t you want to go through?” Time and again they taunt me by reminding me the ProScans aren’t X-ray machines. When I inquire exactly what they are, I have never had an agent answer me. Frankly,  I am always shocked that the Agents go to so much trouble to make me feel foolish. But, of course, we are all at the mercy of the TSA Agent when going through Security, and I rather not argue with them, but at the same time I wanted to understand what the ProScan was exactly so I could at least respond to any snide remark with an educated replya. So….I did my homework and researched it, and guess what? The ProScans sure do give off radiation.

There is a lot of information out there about the scanners, but if you don’t want to do the legwork, a good, simple article to read is a CNN article I found called, “Airport Security Scans: What would your doctor do?”. In the article the writer interviewed several medical doctors and asked them if they themselves actually go through the scanners when traveling. The answer is…most of them don’t. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

Doctors who say "no" to the scanners
Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, takes a pat-down instead of going through a scanner when he travels. He says he's concerned about whether the machines are calibrated and inspected properly.
"USA Today did a piece on how badly TSA maintained their X-ray equipment for carryon bags, and this gave me little confidence," he wrote to me in an e-mail.
Brawley's deputy concurs.
"I do whatever I can to avoid the scanner," Dr. Len Lichtenfeld wrote to me in an e-mail.
He says as a frequent flier, he's concerned about the cumulative effect of the radiation.
"This is a total body scan -- not a dental or chest X-ray," he wrote to me. "Total body radiation is not something I find very comforting based on my medical knowledge."
Lichtenfeld says it doesn't necessarily give him great comfort that the TSA says the scans are safe.
"I can still remember getting my feet radiated as a child when I went to the shoe store and they had a machine which could see how my foot fit in the new shoes," he says. "We were told then that they were safe, and they were not."
(At first I thought Lichtenfeld was making this up, but you can actually see one of these foot scanners at the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices at the Science Museum of Minnesota.)
Another doctor who opts for the pat-down is Dr. Dong Kim, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' neurosurgeon.
"There is really no absolutely safe dose of radiation," says Kim, chair of the department of neurosurgery at the University of Texas Medical School. "Each exposure is additive, and there is no need to incur any extra radiation when there is an alternative."
This was echoed by several other physicians, including Dr. Andrew Weil.
"All radiation exposure adds to the cumulative total you've received over your lifetime," Weil wrote to me in an e-mail. "Cancer risks correlate with that number, so no dose of radiation is too small to matter."
Doctors exposed to radiation at work are particularly sensitive to this issue, as I learned when I got through security that day in the airport and chased after the doctor who'd opted out.
I learned his name is Dr. Karl Bilimoria, and he's a surgical oncology fellow at M.D. Anderson. He says this is a frequent topic of discussion among his colleagues.
"If we can avoid a little radiation in exchange for the two extra minutes needed for a pat-down, then we will," he says.

Please read the article for the full details:

After hearing that many doctors choose NOT to go through the scanners, I felt better about my decision to always Opt-Out. I noticed that this past year (2014) I have been surrounded by a lot more travelers who are standing beside me and my kids at the ProScan stop asking to Opt-Out. I feel in good company now!

Remember, radiation is cumulative, and, as Dr. Weil says, no dose is safe, and no dose is too small to matter.

So, next time you travel, leave a little extra time to go through Security, and Opt-Out of the ProScan and wait for a pat down. You may live longer!


Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Healthy Travel Review: Half Moon Bay, California

Half Moon Bay
In my endless search for great beach towns in Northern California, I recently discovered Half Moon Bay, which lies about 3o miles south of San Francisco. It is a relatively small beach town with a nice, but tiny main street that spans about three blocks and has some cute shops and restaurants.

You never know what you'll find in Half Moon
Bay! This ship was in a cute courtyard with
 small artists booths around selling their creations.

I went to Half Moon Bay for the first time 2 years ago in 2013, where we decided to stay at the Half Moon Bay Lodge because it was reasonably priced, near the beach, and located next to the Ritz-Carlton, so I thought it would be at the best spot in town. It was a nice hotel, nothing special and more like a Best Western,  but comfy and somewhat reasonably priced. The bad news for me was although it was on the beach as the crow flies, it was a 25+ minute walk on a narrow paved road to actually get to the beach access point, which was really too far from the beach for me!  Plus, none of the rooms had a beach view. We ended up having to drive to the beach and fight for a parking spot along with every other beach-goer that weekend.
We went back to Half Moon Bay this year in January 2015 and decided to stay at the only hotel (from what I can tell) that was ON the beach, The Beach House. 

The Beach House

My kids and I headed out to Half Moon Bay on a beautiful Sunday morning in January to celebrate my birthday and made great time getting there until we got into the actual town of Half Moon Bay, where we hit an absurd amount of traffic. We were only 15 minutes drive from our hotel, but we were stuck  in traffic for over 1-1/2 hours. I learned from the locals that this is typical traffic in HMB, especially on a warm, sunny beach day, like the one we had that day. Frustrating. I was hoping to get to the hotel early so we could have the day at the beach and enjoy the pool and jacuzzi as well, but we didn’t arrive there until late afternoon. But I was so thrilled to finally arrive there I just about danced into the lobby excited to check-in, only to be greeted by a lukewarm front desk person. He checked us in without a smile and when he learned it was my birthday, I didn’t even get a friendly happy birthday. Bad start.

Our room was on the second floor overlooking the beach and seemed nice and roomy. We had a little balcony with a table and two chairs and a small kitchenette, which I love to have when traveling, which had a small fridge, two burners, and a sink. I tucked a bottle of organic champagne and a beautiful vegan chocolate birthday cake into the fridge and we headed out to look around and enjoy the beach before the sunset.

Our ocean view room facing the balcony

The view was lovely from our balcony but I must warn you, there is a  nearby foghorn that goes off every 10 seconds DAY AND NIGHT. It wasn’t really a problem for me because I travel with a white noise maker for night-time, but the constant noise of the horn might cause a bit of stress for some, especially at night. 

The view from the hotel rooms are not ocean FRONT, because there is a little bike path
between you and the ocean as well as some beach grass and shrubs. But
it is only a few minutes walk until your feet feel the ocean water.

The moon on the nights we were there was not quite "Half Moon" yet, but lovely just the same

You can view the sunset from your balcony at The Beach House

I found The Beach House a nice place to stay but WAY overpriced for what is offered. It was really nice having a little kitchenette but it wasn't mentioned when I booked the room so I did not bring any food to cook, which would have been nice for breakfast so we didn't have to run out of the room hungry in the mornings.

As far as the hotel's "green initiatives" I did not see that they had any, after checking both the website and the literature in the room.

For LOTS more info on our hotel, The Beach House, please read my VERY LONG travel review on Trip Advisor:

On our way to our hotel we stopped at the MOONSIDE BAKERY AND CAFE in the center of town. Before our trip I did some research on healthy veg eating options in Half Moon Bay and this Cafe seemed to have a few nice veggie choices, including a veggie burger, so we stopped in for a late lunch. It was a bit more casual than I expected and more a Bakery than Cafe. There was a long line leading up to the bakery counter where you can order sandwiches, salads and wood-fired pizzas from a small lunch menu and they give you a number and bring it out to you. 

The Cafe is really a long bakery counter/case
where you order your food and it is brought out 
 The tables are few and scattered and more like a cafeteria than a nice cafe and not a very relaxing place to dine, but fine for a quick meal.  Moonside Bakery is attached to a small indoor mini-mall, and the table we found was out in the small, somewhat dingy indoor courtyard, which was quite noisy and uninviting. Not what I expected after looking at the website (don’t you hear THAT alot!).

The Cafe is small so our table was out in the indoor courtyard

 The food menu was quite pricy for a non-server cafe, but HMB is expensive in general, so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. One of my son’s ordered a kid’s mac and cheese which was made from a box with powdered cheese and was so unappealing, he did not eat much of it. 

Not so fresh Mac and Cheese
My other son ordered the Garden Vegie (that is how they spelled it) sandwich, which had avocado, tomato, lettuce and sprouts on your choice of bread, he chose french, and is served with a side of fresh fruit. My son said the sandwich was good, nothing special, but some of the fruit was a bit too mushy to eat. 

I ordered the Vegie Burger (yep! spelled like that) which was a homemade patty, which was impressive, and was topped with carrots and cucumbers on whole wheat bread. It was nice, again, nothing special, but I was VERY appreciative to find a vegan option.

Vegie Burger on Whole Wheat

  There were no vegan bakery items but lots of vegetarian options so my sons got a few meringue cookies and a crescent moon butter cookie. The meringues were stale but the butter cookie nice and fresh.

 The bakery items looked really cute and, if you are looking for a lovely treat and not on the healthy side, this could be your place! 

Even though our experience wasn’t wonderful, I might come here again because there are some veggie (or “vegie”) items on the menu and eating choices in this small beach town are quite limited. Next time I will know what to expect.

China House
The last time we came to Half Moon Bay in 2013, we found an awesome chinese restaurant that delivered to our hotel room, The China House. They had a fantastic variety of vegan/vegetarian times on their menu that included vegetarian Bao, which is soooo hard to find, since traditional Bao is pork-filled. For those unfamiliar with Bao, it is a doughy bun with filling, often a sweet pork filling as I mentioned, but China House has a veggie version which I LOVED.  You can also find Bao's with a sweet red bean paste filling, which is REALLY yummy and usually served as a dessert item. 

Our array of yummy veggie dishes.
The veggie Bao is first on the bottom.

The China House had a separate Vegetarian menu, which makes it easy to make selections for healthy eaters. 

We went a bit crazy, ordering the Steamed Veggie Dumplings (Bao), Sauteed Broccoli with Asparagus, China House Vegetarian Deluxe with Tofu, and rice. It was hot, delicious, and reasonably priced. The best!

We loved everything but I think my favorite is the
broccoli and asparagus dish. We ask them to
add some fried tofu.

I was thrilled to find that they were still in Half Moon Bay and they still delivered!