Thursday, August 26, 2010

Amputees worry about radiation exposure, unqualified screeners at airport security

From USA Today:

Eileen Casey (pictured) doesn't want to travel by air anymore, because security personnel at some airports require her to be screened by an X-ray device for passengers with prosthetic limbs.

Casey, a former competitive swimmer, says she lost her right leg from radiation treatments for a skin condition in the 1970s before the dangers of the treatment were understood.

"It's ironic to lose my leg to a radiation overdose, and now, if I want to travel, I have to expose myself to more radiation," says the Burlington, Vt., resident.

Many people with prosthetic limbs complain about the CastScope, a screening device, that uses backscatter X-ray technology to identify security threats concealed in a prosthetic, cast or bandage. They say they're concerned about radiation exposure, the length of time it takes to be screened and a lack of qualified personnel operating the devices.

In June, the Amputee Coalition of America expressed its concerns about the CastScope and called on the Transportation Security Administration to "clean up its act" when screening people who've lost a limb. The group, which has about 5,300 members, says a survey of 7,300 amputees finds they've been subjected to "inconsistent, unfair, abusive and often embarrassing screenings" by TSA personnel.

"One of my biggest peeves is the CastScope," says Jeffrey Cain, a doctor and chief of family medicine at The Children's Hospital in Denver, whose legs were amputated below the knee. "It takes a long time, some screeners don't know how to operate it and, as a frequent flier, I'm concerned about the potential cumulative dose of radiation."

The TSA spent $1.7 million in September 2007 for 35 CastScopes and support services. The agency says it has deployed the devices at 11 airports and doesn't plan to buy more.

The CastScope uses the same X-ray technology as full-body imaging machines that the TSA has been deploying to screen fliers. Critics call the processes "virtual strip searches" and express privacy, radiation and other concerns.

Unlike a full-body imaging machine, a CastScope X-rays only the area with a prosthetic, cast or bandage. Multiple X-rays are taken. The full-body imaging and CastScope devices emit a very low dose of radiation, according to the TSA and the devices' manufacturer, Tek84. Scientists and the government have determined that the dose is far below the dose limits specified by the American National Standards Institute, the TSA says.

Cain, a board member of the Amputee Coalition, isn't convinced. He says he receives 20 X-rays when scanned by the CastScope, and five scans annually could exceed the recommended safe limit.

Tek84's Steve Smith, who invented the CastScope and the full-body imaging device, says it would take 2,500 X-rays annually to reach the limit. TSA spokesman Nicholas Kimball agrees with the 2,500 annual limit and says one CastScope scan of a leg or an arm delivers less than 1 microrem of radiation.

Peter Rez, a physics professor at Arizona State University, says he doesn't believe the dose of radiation emitted by the devices "is as low as claimed." But, he says, it is probably less than the dose from natural background radiation or the dose received when flying at a high altitude. The probability of dying from cancer from radiation from airport body scanners is equal to the probability of being blown up by a terrorist on an aircraft, Rez says.

The TSA says passengers can opt to be screened by a magnetometer and hand search if they don't want to go through the imaging device. Passengers with prosthetics cannot opt out of a CastScope. The TSA says John Pistole, who became the agency's administrator last month, is reviewing existing policies.

After the Amputee Coalition expressed concerns in June, the group's president, Kendra Calhoun, says the TSA agreed to increase CastScope operators' training frequency and disseminate information about radiation exposure.

The TSA will also develop sensitivity training for its security officers and make them more familiar with "the many kinds of prosthetics they encounter," Calhoun says.

Don Bigler, a trustee at the National Amputee Golf Association, says airport screeners treat him "like a third-class citizen." Many are rude and "just don't care" about amputee travelers, he says.

Ronnie Graves of Bushnell, Fla., says screeners need to be "more respectful" and to stop yelling at amputees to take their shoes off. Removing shoes puts an amputee off balance, he says. "I try to drive instead of flying, mainly because of the way I've been treated," he says.

Peggy Chenoweth of Gainesville, Va., says she's been screened twice with a CastScope at Baltimore/Washington International, and both times screeners didn't know how to use the device. They had to pull out a manual to figure out how she should stand and how to X-ray her, she says.

Todd Blosser, a wheelchair basketball player, was angry about missing a flight from the Denver airport in March because he says security screeners didn't know how to operate a CastScope.

Blosser plays for the Connecticut Spokebenders, a National Wheelchair Basketball Association team that competes against other community and college teams. He says he waited more than 45 minutes until someone certified to operate a CastScope was found.

Blosser, though, says he rarely complains about security screening. And some amputee travelers say they have not had any problems.

"The screening has always been tastefully done, and I've been treated with the utmost respect," says Gary Corbin, a New York-based actor.

Naomi Halperin of Wilmington, Del., says screening is inconsistent — "from extremely lax to extremely secure" — but she's never been mistreated by TSA personnel. A photography director at a newspaper, Halperin says TSA agents have always given her an option of going to a private area for screening.

Kurt Yaeger, an actor and a writer in Valley Village, Calif., says a CastScope screening in Detroit was "a phenomenal experience" that saved him time and avoided a pat-down search.

Yaeger, though, says he sometimes has been annoyed by how long airport screening takes — particularly when the screener is in training. He says he understands the importance of a thorough search. "I thought security screening was a hassle until a screener in Canada saw my prosthetic and let me go through without even wanding me," Yaeger says.