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Government plans a safety study of backscatter x-ray body scanners

A few years after the Transportation Security Administration started using so-called “backscatter x-ray” machines for passenger screenings at airports around the country, the Department of Homeland Security has decided it might be time to find out if those body-scanning devices machines are really safe.

The website Nextgov.com, which pores over the thousands of government agency filings, reports and notifications put out each week, said it discovered a notice from DHS that it intends to award a contract to the National Academy of Sciences to put together a study of the backscatter machines.

According to the DHS notice, the agency will ask the National Academy of Sciences to review previous studies and to examine current processes used by DHS and equipment manufacturers to estimate radiation exposure from backscatter x-rays. Then it wants to see a report on “whether exposures comply with applicable health and safety standards for public and occupational exposures to ionizing radiation,” and whether current system designs and operating procedures “are appropriate to prevent overexposures of travelers and operators to ionizing radiation.”

The agency did not set out a timeframe for the study’s completion, and noted that it “will not address legal, cultural or privacy implications of this technology.”

Some consumer advocacy groups have maintained that the machines are not as safe as the government has previously claimed, especially for persons who undergo repeated exposures. A few months ago, TSA started to remove backscatter machines from some of the nation’s busiest airports, replacing them with body scanners that use millimeter wave technology, relying on low-frequency radio waves instead of x-rays.

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