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Backscatter X-ray body scanners : IRSN assesses the health risks

Following the thwarted bombing attempt on the flight between Amsterdam and Detroit on the 25 December 2009, IRSN was commissioned by the French Ministry of Ecology, Energy, Sustainable Development and the Sea to carry out an assessment of the dosimetric impact and the health risk of “backscatter” X-ray body scanners [1].

IRSN’s study has shown that the doses received during a control are extremely low (less than a microsievert). The effective dose is therefore more than one thousand times lower than that linked to average natural radiation in France (2500 microsieverts/year). As an indication, the exposure that a passenger receives during a control is equivalent to 1 to 2 minutes of high altitude flight.

However, the ionising radiation used by such scanners leads to exposure not only of the skin but also certain organs close to the body surface (lens of the eyes, breast, testicles, thyroid, etc.).

These extremely low doses, although at first sight negligible, must however be considered in the light of the underlying principle of radiation protection and particularly that of justification [2]. According to this principle, any dose, however low, must be avoided if it proves to be unnecessary with regard to individual, collective or societal interest. Certain practices, even though delivering extremely low doses, may thus not be authorised, particularly when an alternative technology exists with comparable performance without any known impact on health.

It is for this reason that IRSN has recommended that the French authorities do not retain the option of X-ray scanners but instead turn to technologies with comparable detection performance that do not employ ionising radiation, such as the ProVision 100 "millimetre" wave body scanner, which has been the subject of a report by AFSSET (French Agency for Environmental and Occupational Health Safety).

Download the IRSN report :"Assessment of health risk of X-ray backscatter body scanners" (PDF file).

1- “Backscatter” body scanner technology employs low energy X-rays. It is used to detect objects hidden in clothes that cannot be detected with normal metal detectors, such as those in security gates installed in airports.  
2- Code de la santé publique (French public health code) (art. L1333-1).

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