Answer to Question #11342 Submitted to "Ask the Experts"

Category: Security Screening — Airport Screening

The following question was answered by an expert in the appropriate field:

Q

It is early in my pregnancy, and I am currently working in an airport. Every day I go through two gates with full-body scanners, and I am worried that this will affect the baby I'm carrying. Do I need to worry about it? Am I putting my baby and myself at risk?

A

Thank you for your question. I assume these are the types of scanners that use x rays. I can certainly understand why you are concerned, but there is little (if any) measurable radiation dose to the baby from these scanners.

How do current "backscatter" x-ray security scanners work?
After you step into the enclosure, an image is formed using low-energy x rays. These x rays pass through your clothing and are scattered back from their interaction with your body into radiation detectors on the scanning device.

What is the dose from an airport x-ray scanner and how does it compare to background radiation?
A study done by Johns Hopkins University (2010) of the radiation dose from backscatter screeners showed that the dose from two scans per screening was about 0.05 microsievert (µSv, a unit of effective radiation dose). Having two scans per day (0.05 × 2 = 0.1 µSv ) for 180 days of gestation would be 0.1 µSv × 180 days = 18 µSv. Your normal, everyday background radiation dose is about 10 µSv per day. A chest x ray is about 100 µSv. So a backscatter screening results in an effective dose that is about two days of background radiation.

Does airport scanner radiation penetrate through my entire body like medical x rays?
The x rays produced by the scanner are absorbed throughout the body. The doses are extremely low, with radiation doses higher near the surface of the body (ribs, skin, etc.). The doses to deeper internal organs (stomach, lungs, liver, etc.) are approximately one-fourth (25%) of the average dose to the skin. This means that, at the most, the baby would receive 18 µSv (calculated above) × 25% or about 4–5 µSv.

Is there any "real" risk to my baby from going through an airport x-ray scanner?
It depends on what you mean by "real." The background risk for birth defects is 3% and for miscarriage is 15%; these unfortunate events occur naturally. The lowest radiation dose shown to cause issues during pregnancy is on the order of 60,000 µSv, significantly above the radiation dose the baby will receive during gestation.

However, if you are still concerned, you could ask if they could use a wand to screen you. The wand uses a magnetic field, not x rays.

Kelly Classic
Certified Medical Health Physicist

Ask the Experts is posting answers using only SI (the International System of Units) in accordance with international practice. To convert these to traditional units we have prepared a conversion table. You can also view a diagram to help put the radiation information presented in this question and answer in perspective. Explanations of radiation terms can be found here.
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