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!
MORE INFO ON AIRPORT BODY SCANNERS: