Zzzzaapp! Some angry photons have just been blasted off toward your body, scouting for “contraband.” In the process of the search, these energetic massless particles will kick the crap out of some of your body’s cells, disrupting them in their duties. Some of these cells will be so desolated by the experience that they will lose their lust for life and will die. Others might be so incensed that they will turn rogue (i.e. cancerous).
But it’s OK, because Janet “I’m Not A Scientist” Napolitano has said it’s OK. Your submitting yourself to an invasive X-ray probe is a matter of security, and to this benighted female, nothing is more important. Except perhaps her reputation.
Passengers should understand that Napolitano has thought about these matters; therefore, they don’t need to. “It’s all about everybody recognising their role,” she said. Your role is to submit!
An IRB is an Institutional Review Board, a group of physicians, scientists, lawyers, ethicists, and members of the community which meets periodically to review and approve or disapprove research projects submitted by white-coated men and women. IRBs are charged with balancing the risks of proposed studies with their possible benefits. If the IRB judges the risks outweigh the benefits, the research is denied.
I have sat on multiple IRBs which have rejected, and rejected in some cases vociferously, experiments of the kind the TSA is now engaged in. IRBs are extremely wary of dosing people with X-rays (particularly CAT scans) unless the benefit is substantial. The theory IRBs use is invariably: the less exposure to X-rays the better.
It is important to understand that all radiation is not harmful (you are being bombarded even now with photons), that some is beneficial, and that the risk of untoward events even when exposed to ionizing radiation is usually small. It is also true that in many or most cases in which are you blasted with X-rays, it is for good reason. For example, the detection of broken bones, tumors, or cavities.
Just think: your dentist first lays a thick, lead-padded apron on your chest, then retreats from the room as he blasts some radiation towards your molars. His timidity isn’t because this particular dose of radiation will be harmful, but because the accumulated doses he would receive if he stayed in the room for all his patients might be.
How much risk is incurred by having a TSA agent goggle at your pertinents? Especially if you’re a frequent flier? Incidentally, is it just my natural distrust of authority, or is the TSA preferentially singling out the most beautiful women for “inspection”?
From an NPR story on how some scientists are questioning the safety of the X-ray probes:
“Many people will approach this as, ‘Oh, it must be safe, the government has thought about this and I’ll just submit to it,’” says David Agard, a biochemist and biophysicist at the University of California, San Francisco. “But there really is no threshold of low dose being OK. Any dose of X-rays produces some potential risk.”
What’s amusing about this is that Agard assumes that most people will believe that our government loves us and would never do anything to harm us. However, his next comment is of the kind I have heard often on IRBs. The risk is there, probably minor, but we have to take the government’s word for it (there have not been many independent tests). The question left unanswered is: what benefit is there?
And on this we have had no debate, no public argument. Instead, we have had a bureaucratic decision by fiat—but is there any other kind?
Here’s the real concern. The current dose, if the government is not, heaven forfend, lying or exaggerating, small. The problem may be that it is too small. There is, for example, already evidence that the scans might not catch some forms of explosives. Will our government then decide to secretively increase the dose to higher levels? After all, nothing is more important than safety!
It is also so that the TSA is engaged in fishing expeditions. And not just for titillating photos of beautiful women. Napolotiano has been careful to use the word “contraband” and not “weapons” to describe the use of the probes. Meaning that the TSA is also going after clowns with drugs strapped to their legs and so forth. Illegal search, anybody?
Of course, you needn’t submit to an x-ray centerfold shot. You may choose to take part in the TSA’s well-considered Grab, Grip, and Grope pantomime instead. Remember: you do not have a right to travel without government permission.
Update My Marvin Gaye comment from two days ago was prescient: I am listening now to WABC in New York (Saturday, 7:45 am) and they are playing a parody of the same Marvin Gaye song I had in mind.