Answer to Question #9417 Submitted to "Ask the Experts"

Category: Pregnancy and Radiation — Flying

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

Q

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?
 

A

Thank you for contacting the Health Physics Society (HPS) Ask the Experts (ATE) website. First of all, you can relax. 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 which all pregnant women face.

Good luck with your pregnancy.

Robert Brent MD, PhD

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.
Answer posted on 24 November 2010. 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.