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Travel briefcase: Full-body scanners worry health experts

Also: PETA ad suggests going vegan to look better for airport scanners, and travelers cancel reservations at Gulf Coast hotels because of the oil spill.

May 24, 2010|By Hugo Martín, Los Angeles Times

By the end of next year, the Transportation Security Administration hopes to have nearly 1,000 full-body scanners to screen passengers at airports across the country. Two are already operational at Los Angeles International Airport.

But a group of doctors and professors from UC San Francisco are raising new concerns about the safety of the technology in one type of full-body scanner built by Torrance-based Rapiscan Inc.

To reveal weapons hidden under a traveler's clothes, the scanner relies on "backscatter technology," which uses the ricochets from low-level X-rays to create what looks like a nude image of the person.

Health concerns have been raised in the past by activists and bloggers. In contrast, the latest safety questions are being raised by professors of biochemistry and biophysics and experts in imaging, cancer and crystals.

The experts, including John Sedat, David Agard, Dr. Marc Shuman and Robert Stroud, wrote to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. They said they fear that the scanners may expose the skin to high doses of X-rays that could increase the risk of cancer and other health problems, particularly among older travelers, pregnant women and people with weak immune systems.

They asked that the White House assemble an independent panel to look into the concerns.

But officials at the Department of Homeland Security say there is no need to worry.

Dr. Alexander Garza, the assistant secretary for health affairs and chief medical officer for the department, said he travels often with his wife and three boys and has no fear about putting his family through the airport scanners.

"The risk is so low it's almost negligible," he said.

Plus, he said, passengers can forgo the scanner and instead undergo a full-body pat-down search.

Southwest Airlines rejects PETA ad

If you're feeling self-conscious about TSA officials seeing your body in the scanner, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals suggests you go vegan.

PETA submitted an ad last month for Southwest Airlines' in-flight magazine that shows a woman's torso, clad only in skimpy underwear, emblazoned with the words "Be proud of your body scan: Go vegan."

The point, according to a PETA spokesman, is that vegans who forgo meat and other animal products often have a better physique and won't be embarrassed to go through a full-body scanner at the airport.

Southwest Airlines rejected the ad.

"It was not about the content," said Southwest spokeswoman Whitney Eichinger. "It's about the image. It's not a good fit for our publication."

PETA Senior Vice President Dan Mathews suggested another explanation: "The airline may have canned it because the company is based in Dallas, the heart of the beef belt."

Hotel reservations canceled over Gulf oil spill

It's no surprise that tourists planning to frolic on the beaches along parts of the Gulf of Mexico might consider canceling travel plans there because of the expanding oil spill.

But even business travelers, with plans to hold meetings and conferences along the gulf, are abandoning the region.

In a survey of hotels throughout the Gulf Coast taken last week, 42% of hotels said they had seen groups cancel reservations because of the oil spill, up from 35% from two weeks earlier, according to the Knowland Group, a Virginia sales and marketing firm that conducted the survey.

And 56% of hoteliers are blaming the media, which they say has exaggerated the impact of the spill, according to the survey. "The media is making it out to be worse than what it really is," a Panama City, Fla., hotel representative said in the survey.

But there has been a silver lining, at least for the hotels. In the same survey, the hotels said they have seen an increase in last-minute bookings related to the spill, including new guests from the petroleum industry, environmental groups and the media.

hugo.martin@latimes.com

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