Canadian airport security officers are pushing travellers to use 'naked' scanners that were not independently tested and are now tied to documented cases of severe headaches and at least one unexplained radiation burn.
Ottawa says it assessed the manufacturer's information but didn't conduct its own tests on the machines. The manufacturer says the scanners are safe and are independently tested by purchasing governments — though that hasn't happened in Canada or the United States.
Passenger complaints obtained by The Huffington Post Canada suggest security screeners repeatedly breached protocol by forcing passengers — including children, pregnant women and those with illnesses — to enter full-body scanners rather than perform requested pat downs. Screeners also failed in a number of cases to inform travellers they could opt for a pat down instead.
When passengers expressed health and safety concerns, officers repeatedly disregarded their complaints or treated them rudely.
SLIDESHOW: READ THE COMPLAINTS
The Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA), the agency that employs the men and women who screen passengers and carry-on bags, insists the full-body scanners are safe.
But complaint forms, released under the Access to Information Act, suggest some travellers experienced serious side-effects after going through the so-called virtual strip search machines.
“As soon as I stepped into the scanner I immediately began to feel sick. I looked at the agent to my left for instructions and just moving my head made me very dizzy. As I stepped out of the scanner I was very dizzy and sick to my stomach. I notified the agent and she called for the supervisor. I could barely stand,” wrote one passenger flying from Regina to Calgary last February.
Mathieu Larocque, CATSA’s spokesperson, said the 56 full-body scanners the Conservative government purchased in 2010 are risk-free.
“As per the Health Canada study on our website, MMW FBS (millimetre-wave full-body scanners) do not pose a threat to human health. That includes pregnant women,” Larocque wrote in an email.
Health Canada, however, has not studied the health effects of the scanners. In fact, the naked full-body millimetre-wave machines have never been independently tested.
“We don’t test machines,” Gary Holub, a spokesman for Health Canada said. “These imaging devices, I understand, work on radio-frequency energies like the very same that would be emitted from a cellphone or any other number of electronic devices,” he said.
What Health Canada did was “assess” the information it received from the scanner’s manufacturer, L-3 Communications, deciding that the radiation reported fell well within acceptable guidelines for safe human exposure.
"The electromagnetic non-ionizing radiation used in these scanners is based on millimetre-wave technology and does not pose a risk to human health and safety, from either single or repeated exposures," the department states on its website.
Health Canada said Industry Canada, as the regulator, was responsible for verifying the manufacturers claims, but that department refused to say whether it had tested the machine or if any independent tests had been conducted.
John Sedat, an emeritus professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of California San Francisco and North America’s premier expert on full-body scanners, told HuffPost that L-3 Communications’ claims that its ProVision full-body scanners emit one one thousandth of the emissions of a cellphone (0.001) have never been verified.
Sedat, whose research has focused extensively on backscatter X-ray machines that are used in the U.S. and which according to him pose a much greater threat to the public, said he has recently been forced to start thinking more about the millimetre-wave machines.
“Recently some people have called me up and start complaining that people are getting headaches from these machines, severe headaches, not only the people who are doing these, in other words, the workers, but apparently people that are going through this,” Sedat said.
“At least one person has sent me a burn on their leg and they said that it came from an X-ray machine but then we tracked down what airport they claimed they went through, the machines at that airport are millimetre machines,” Sedat said.
“The guy sent me a copy of the [pathology] report and the report is a legitimate radiation burn … you don’t get radiation burns from nothing,” Sedat continued. “I don’t reconcile how this could happen. It doesn’t make sense, but who knows how these machines are put together? We have no data. How are they generated? There is a lot of technology, possibly, that maybe the machine puts out X-rays that are never tested? I don’t know.”
In principle the scanners are safe, Sedat said. “But, in practice, I don’t know.”
“What if milimetre technology affects brain cells? … What if the machines put out X-rays at the same time? I don’t know.”
L-3 Communications said it was not aware of any side-effects.
The company said its machines had also been independently tested by government.
“The regulatory bodies test the machines to their own defined regiment, so each country defines their needs so they are independently tested,” said an L-3 Communications public relations consultant after the company refused to provide an on-the-record comment.
Canada’s Research Chair in High-Frequency Electromagnetics, Natalia Nikolova, told HuffPost she’s not convinced the machines have ever been tested. If they have, no one has published on the topic.
It is up to the regulator to ensure the scanners are working at the same frequency the manufacturer claims, she said.
“Do [the governments] actually test what is on paper is actually the case? That would be a very good question because our government as well as the U.S. government they are known to be sometimes, not particularly thorough. They just look at the technical documentation and they say ‘Oh that’s OK, these power levels are very low.’ But nobody would actually take a machine in a lab and measure it. I wouldn’t be surprised if they are not doing that,” she said.
The scanners’ millimetre waves are not supposed to penetrate beyond the skin, Nikolova added.
“If there is no penetration of the body, then there is no reason for anyone to believe that there can be any harmful effects,” said the McMaster University professor who is working with colleagues to develop a competing weapons detection system based on microwave radar technology.
At a different frequency, millimetre waves can penetrate below the skin, reach nerve endings and cause people pain, Nikolova said. This is why the military is using them for tests on crowd control, she said, noting that the waves “cannot kill anybody” and would have “no long term effects.”
Nikolova said there has been “no test of safety” done independently for the full-body scanners because biomedical researchers tested the waves decades ago and found no negative health effects.
She said she believes it is impossible for the full-body scanners to emit any X-rays. She also thinks the headaches reported by some travellers may simply be the result of feeling claustrophobic while inside the scanner.
Still, she said, the governments should test the machines and study the potential health consequences.
“There are millions of people who have gone through the scanners and certainly these complaints are not statistically significant … but when it comes to people, what is statistically insignificant is also important,” Nikolova said.
“When it comes to to the safety of people, absolutely no money should be spared.”
If you've got a complaint or experience with a full-body scanner you would like to share, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org
READ THE COMPLAINTS
The Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) has received a large number of complaints about the body scans now being taken at airports. The following is a sampling of the outrage expressed by travellers. (BERTRAND LANGLOIS/AFP/Getty Images)
From a traveller at the Montreal airport: "I am writing to voice a complaint about security screening yesterday (October 18, 2010) in the U.S. departure wing, around 10:30 am. I was flagged for additional screening and asked to do a full body scan. When I asked for a pat down from a female agent, the male security agent refused and said "everyone" did the body scan. He also told me that it was not a body scan but a radio-frequency scan and no image of my body would be made. He also made the comment "sorry, I can't do your pat down," indicating that he would have liked to. However, the machine was clearly a full body scanner, as confirmed in news reports. The full body scan should never be lied about or forced on passengers. I wanted to draw this to your attention."
An elderly woman from Victoria, B.C., wrote to complain that she felt a CATSA officer had threatened her with a naked full-cavity body search if she didn't go through the scanner. "A male security agent said to me, in a manner that sounded like he was joking, "would you like to have a full body search?" ... if not, then proceed to the body scanner. I was quite taken aback, but proceeded. Upon exiting the scanner, the female agent distractedly told me to basically move along. After retrieving my belongings, I walked away trembling, found a chair and sat down and cried. I am a [woman's age blanked out] travel somewhat frequently, and am not given to emotional outbursts. However, for whatever reason, I found this very disturbing. I felt I was treated without respect and my dignity was violated." The woman went on to say she would like more information, specifically if the "full-body search" the screen officer mentioned "involved being naked, and cavities probed?"
From a passenger flying through the Ottawa airport: "Despite the fact I was wearing shorts, the machine indicated I had objects on my calves, which resulted in a pat down from the CATSA officer. I am complaining about the waste of time this process was. It achieved nothing except delay me."
An older woman who flies through Halifax said she is protesting scans by implementing her own boycott: "Rather than refusing to go through the scanners, I have significantly reduced my flying trips to the US. There are at least 10 short haul trips to the US that I have made by car rather than flying with Air Canada as I used to do ... Because I am an older woman, I am often chosen for extra pat downs so that the screeners can demonstrate that they are not profiling."
Another Halifax traveller is refusing to fly altogether because of scans: "In light of the recent introduction of blatantly intrusive and gratuitous manhandling at Canadian airports, I will no longer fly. When faced with two choices, sumit to molestation or submit to naked body scanning with equipment that has no real long-term safety testing, I choose neither. My only question is this: How is it that Israel, a country with a MUCH more real threat of daily terrorism manages to operate its airlines without naked body scanners? I am aware of the threat of terrorism and the need for safety, yet I am also aware that a naked body scan might not find something that has been inserted into a body cavity, should we expect cavity searches to come complimentary with our airline passes? You see how this does not have an end."
A man travelling through Montreal's airports expressed concern that he was racially profiled: "I was instructed by your security person to step into a glass chamber. I asked him why I was selected. He said everyone in that line had to do it. After going through that I realized it was the "naked" X-ray machine. I was never given a choice. My wife [word blanked out] was given the choice to be patted down or to go through the machine. She chose the pat down. In the US we are told that we have a choice. I complained to the supervisor at that post and identified the person who forced me to undergo this treatment without my consent ... I think this was a violation of my civic rights ... My wife and I spent more than $2,000 in Canada on this trip, in a country [words blanked out] I will be reluctant to travel to Canada again and I will exercise my influence with every professional organization to avoid Canadian cities for conferences ... I want an investigation and the person responsible to be reprimanded if he violated your policy. On the other hand, it might well be your policy [words blanked out] in a sneaky ways,"
Another passenger in Halifax: "I do not think it should be an option to view children naked and ask that you do not use it on anyone under 18. Also, please do not ever make them mandatory as it is an invasion of privacy."
A traveller on a WesJet flight from Regina to Calgary last February complained that the scanner made her sick: "This was my first time to go through the body scan. As soon as I stepped into the scanner I immediately began to feel sick. I looked at the agent to my left for instructions and just moving my head made me very dizzy. As I stepped out of thee scanner I was very dizzy and sick to my stomach. I notified the agent and she called for the supervisor. I could barely stand. They sat me down and after about 10-15 minutes I began to feel a little better. The supervisor took my information and assured me he would file a report. The agents took very good care of me and showed concern. I stood up to leave the area and I was just OK. When I sat down again I became very sick and extremely dizzy again. I was concerned if I would even be able to fly. After about 30-45 minutes after the scan I returned to normal. Just wanted you to be aware of the side effects of the scanner."
A Calgary traveller voiced his outrage that the government has purchased full body scanners: "Searching random individuals does not improve airport security, nor do I believe Health Canada's assertions that the full body scan of radio waves is harmless. This same agency approved cigarettes and bpa in plastics. This technology is merely a smoke and mirrors show to make a certain portion of the population feel safer. I will continue to opt for the UNNECESSARY full body pat down rather than be subjected to these manipulative devices."
"I find the new screening process ridiculous for domestic lights. This so called random selection for additional screening has singled me out each of the 6 times I've flown in the past month. I do not believe the body scanners are safe, especially considering how often I am being subjected to them. I cannot fathom how they could have been diligently tested considering how quickly they were deployed. Furthermore, recent newspaper articles have highlighted the deficiencies in the little testing that was done. The alternative physical search is tantamount to molestation and a gross afront to my privacy."
A traveller at Halifax International Airport said a security agent said "there was nothing to fear" and handed the complainant a pamphlet explaining the machine. "Now as an epidemiologist, I am aware of research into health effects. I was astounded to see that the agent had absolutely no knowledge regarding current research into this device. I asked her about the risks of going through this device. She said there wasn't any. I said that although Health Canada allows its use, its effects on health are still a) debated, and b) not fully known. The agent was getting impatient, and I was getting more unsettled by her lack of knowledge which was not at all reassuring, and by the fact that I felt pressured."
"On January 21st, 2011, I was flying from YUL to FLL. I was placed in a line with what looked to be a new machine. I knew that airports were implementing the 'naked' body scanners and I believe that I have the option to opt-out and request a pat down. However, I was unsure if this was in fact one of those machines as there were NO signs indicating so ... Being unsure - I asked the agent 'is this that naked scanner thing?' He laughed, and said No..no.. and I believed him. Why wouldn't I? Well it turns out, it was that body scanner that I was sent through. I am absolutely OUTRAGED that my rights have been completely violated. I would have 100% opted out of the scan and requested a pat down for 2 main reasons. 1 - health risks: [information dealing with the passengers medical information has been blanked out ] It is my understanding that YUL only uses milimetre wave technology. If this is true - How often are the machines serviced and or calibrated? Novermind the fact that we don't really have a lot of data regarding the potential health risks of these machines, but it is a fact that if the machines have not been calibrated properly it CAN cause burns. I would never put myself at this risk. [information blanked out.] 2nd reason is PRIVACY: I am being STRIP SEARCHED without any probable cause or reasonable suspicion and this goes against my charter rights."
One traveller at the Calgary International Airport was upset CATSA officers didn't inform passengers of the risks involved in going through the scanners: "I understand that the amount of radiation a traveller is exposed to in one of these machines meets the arbitrary standard set out by Health Canada, however, the risk is still not zero, and had I been told of this most basic information, I would have gladly consented to a pat down search instead. My issue has, therefore, less to do with the dangers of radiation to one's body than to the fact that travellers are blindly given the choice of a "pat down or a scan" without being told even the minimum advantages and disadvantages of each choice. This altercation ended in my being verbally vilified by the screening staff (one female employee had a particularly confrontational tone of voice which I did not appreciate) for standing up for my rights and demanding why these risks had not been told to me when I had first been given the choice of a pat down or a scan."