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Pregnancy and Security Screening

I have a concern about the full-body scanners that are popping up at airports everywhere. I'm concerned about the kind where you plant your feet and raise your arms above your body for about five seconds.

I'm newly pregnant with my first child and am trying to find some solid research on these things. I can find a decent amount of literature in terms of general health safety, but hardly anything trustworthy about the potential effects on a pregnancy (at any stage).

I admit to being hormonal right now, but I started to cry today when I realized I went through a full-body scanner at an airport early this month without even a second thought. Pregnancy message boards online are filled with paranoid women, I realize, but reading through them made me scared that I might have unknowingly/unnecessarily caused harm to my unborn child.

Should I have opted for a pat-down? Or should I opt for pat-downs in the future? I would love to see some information on your site about these new machines with regard to pregnancy, especially since I will be flying quite a few more times before giving birth. The technology seems relatively new, which makes me even more uncertain about which advice to follow. Has there even been time to do significant studies on the effects to a fetus during pregnancy?
There are two kinds of scanners. The radiofrequency scanner does not use ionizing radiation, so neither you nor your unborn child would be exposed to any radiation that is hazardous.

The "full-body" x-ray scanner uses a very low-energy and low-intensity radiation, so that the unborn child is not exposed to any radiation that could possibly increase the developmental risks of radiation to the embryo.

The energy of the x-ray beam is so low that it does not penetrate the skin and just makes a picture of the outline of your external torso. Your internal organs receive almost no dose.

For more information on these devices, see "Safety for Security Screening Using Devices That Expose Individuals to Ionizing Radiation."

Remember that radiation is all around us. These very low exposures represent no increased risk to the unborn child. If you are healthy and have no personal or family history of reproductive or developmental problems, then you began your pregnancy with a 3 percent risk for birth defects and a 15 percent risk for miscarriage. These are background risks that all pregnant women face.
I am pregnant and operate an x-ray machine at a courthouse, the type that scans items people carry in with them. Should I have any concerns? Should I continue working?
Baggage x-ray machines emit x rays just like medical x-ray machines except at much, much lower levels. The location of the operator is very well shielded and, really, exposes no one. It is safe to continue working while you're pregnant.
As a pregnant woman, does passing through airport security pose a risk to my baby?
Passing through an airport security portal does not pose a risk to a pregnant woman or her unborn child. The metal detector is not known to pose any health risk to individuals. The devices used to scan your carry-ons are very well shielded so there is no risk from passing by those, either.
I reached into an airport x-ray screener that is used to see in to our carry-on items. How much radiation exposure did I get?
There is nothing for you to worry about. Airport x-ray machines and similar x-ray machines used by federal and state agencies to screen briefcases and packages give much lower doses than x-ray machines in hospitals and medical clinics—almost immeasurable. They are designed this way because they do not have to see as much detail, are not designed for looking into very large objects, and are usually looking for things that really "stand out" on images (like metal).

In all likelihood, your hand was not in the actual beam, which would have made your exposure much lower. Furthermore, the hands and feet are very radiation-tolerant relative to the rest of the body.
Does radiation from a security screening device, like those used in airports, affect the items that pass through them such as baby bottles, food items, plants, electronic devices (cell phone), or drug products (like injectable nitroglycerin for a heart condition)?
The radiation exposure from these devices is too low to affect any items passing through (other than certain types of camera film, which can darken), even from repeated exposures. Additionally, in case you were wondering, there isn't any residual radiation in exposed materials after the exposure is complete either.
Does radiation from a security screening device, like those used in airports, affect clothing if it passes through the screening a lot? I have a Gore-Tex® jacket that gets screened quite a bit.
The amount of radiation to which the clothing, even the Gore-Tex® jacket, is exposed is too small to degrade the materials. The manufacturers of these scanners indicate the radiation exposure to an item from one scan is about one-tenth the exposure we receive every day from naturally occurring radiation (commonly called background radiation).
I travel a lot (at least once or twice a week) and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future. Obviously, I have to go through the metal detector at least twice for each trip. What effect does this radiation exposure have on me in the long run?
The metal detector does not expose you to ionizing radiation, e.g., x rays; neither do the wands that are used for individual screening. Metal detectors operate by generating a low-intensity magnetic field that passes from one side of the detector to the other. If metal objects pass through that field, the magnetic field will induce a second field in the metal object. Since that second field is a disruption of the first field, the detector senses the change and sets off an alarm. Magnetic fields are a form of radiation, but they are called "nonionizing" radiation. This means that magnetic fields do not generate additional, damaging radiation the way that ionizing radiation (such as x rays) does. Magnetic fields below a certain intensity are considered to be safe in that they will not cause any biological damage to an individual. As a reference, MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) is considered safe and uses much higher magnetic field intensity than a metal detector. In summary, because of its nonionizing properties, the magnetic field generated in a metal detector will not cause harm to persons, even with routine and/or repeated scanning.
The information posted on this web page is intended as general reference information only. Specific facts and circumstances may affect the applicability of concepts, materials, and information described herein. The information provided is not a substitute for professional advice and should not be relied upon in the absence of such professional advice. To the best of our knowledge, answers are correct at the time they are posted. Be advised that over time, requirements could change, new data could be made available, and Internet links could change, affecting the correctness of the answers. Answers are the professional opinions of the expert responding to each question; they do not necessarily represent the position of the Health Physics Society.
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