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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > A New Flight Hazard

WASHINGTON—Since January of this year, millions of airline passengers have had their hand baggage and personal carry-on articles physically inspected as part of the government’s anti-hijacking program. There has not been a single domestic hi-jack since these procedures were put into effect.

Now the airlines are installing x-ray inspection systems, mainly at the nation’s 30 largest airports, to perform the same job, they say, with less inconvenience to passengers. What they do not say, however, is that millions of passengers and hundreds of workers are being exposed to varying amounts of ionizing radiation without any benefit to the anti-hijacking effort. In fact, relying on x-ray inspections instead of physical searches can produce less detection, particularly due to the mesmerizing effect on the young attendants watching the television screen.

Radiation experts commonly agree that any new source of man-made radiation in our living environment poses some degree of potential damage to the health and safety of both present and future generations. Professor Karl Z. Morgan of the Georgia Institute of Technology, for example, estimates an annual loss of 10,000 to 20,000 lives from genetic and somatic damage due to medical and dental diagnostic radiation exposure in excess of that which is useful or needed. While acknowledging the great benefits of medical x-rays, he urges better equipment, shielding inspection and adequate training of operators as several ways of reducing the risks of such unnecessary exposure.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) which approved the x-ray machinesto be installed at airports simply didn’t know or did not want to know what it was doing.

First of all, the FAA approved these machines without numerous safeguards and threw the inspection function on the woefully underequipped state inspection agencies. There are no mandatory federal safety standards for the design, manufacture, operation or maintenance of these appliances. What’s more, the difference between the design and operation of various machines is known to vary considerably in the radiation they throw off.

Second, the approved x-ray units are technically unable to perceive certain materials which can be used in airborne crimes. In some cases items may be missed depending upon placement in the baggage. Without alarm systems even, it is not surprising for the Aviation Consumer Action Project to report its observations of operator distraction and fatigue which lessen the level of attention paid to the screen.

Third, some of the machines are designed in such a way that the operator’s hand or arm may be put directly into the beam. No shielding, film badges or other monitoring is required for the protection of employees or passengers. The FAA has established no hours of service standards for operators handling these machines even though some workers are absorbing what are considered disturbing levels of radiation up to 120-150 mR per week.

Many of the machines in use today do not meet the minimal guidelines of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare which are very permissive to begin with. The FAA has approved one machine for which the manufacturer had no demonstrator model available. None of the x-ray systems are truly film safe and passengers are not cautioned by the airlines to take film out of their baggage.

Without mandatory safety standards, without effective compliance programs, without any need for these x-ray devices to combat hijacking, with some evidencethat they are actually inferior to physical searches, with radiation exposure grossly in excess of the zero-emission level passengers and workers deserve, the FAA and the airlines should halt these x-ray operations immediately.

Airline travelers and workers interested in finding out more about this problem should write to Cong. Edward Mezvinsky, House of Representatives in Washington. Before long, if this trend is not stopped, there may be pressure by the airlines who want to reduce their labor costs, to personally x-ray passengers.