(NaturalNews) Just how safe, really, are those massive backscatter x-ray machines increasingly used by the Transportation Security Administration to screen airline passengers? That's a question a congressman from Long Island, N.Y., is asking, and it's a question he says needs answering.
Democratic Rep. Steve Israel is calling on the TSA to launch an independent study into the safety of the machines, focusing on what, if any, health risks the full-body scanners pose, and if they do, to what extent.
"I have a high regard for the TSA, but I also know that when government says 'trust us and we don't have to open this up to more scrutiny,' you should open it up to more scrutiny," Israel told WCBS 880 Long Island Bureau Chief Mike Xirinachs, in a recent interview.
Why not conduct more research? What is the TSA afraid of learning?
The New York congressman cited data over the past year which said there have been 3,778 mechanical malfunctions of the backscatter machines, adding that radiation safety surveys were only conducted in about two percent of those cases, according to CBS 2's Jennifer McLogan.
"What happens if the scan pauses for a moment and concentrates on one specific area," he asked.
Israel says his goals are to raise awareness and get some results once and for all regarding the safety of using the machines to scan humans.
"We do have an obligation to make sure that our security is safe and that people know that it's safe," he said.
Other experts agree with Israel.
"Have we thoroughly looked at the safety considerations here? Until we get better studies to answer these questions, the questions will linger," Dr. Kenneth Spaeth, of North Shore-LIJ Health System, who is board certified in environmental medicine, told the local CBS affiliate. He, too, says more research into the effects of the machines is needed.
"The dose here used is quite low, far lower than even an x-ray. And it's important to reinforce the idea that this isn't about creating fear or health concerns existing right now," Spaeth said.
Passengers have routinely expressed concerns about passing through the machines. Not only can they be very revealing, because of the high-quality of the x-ray image, but more and more passengers - especially those who travel frequently - have begun to opt out of the scanning process, citing safety concerns.
There are also special concerns for certain travelers - even if they don't fly very often.
"Particularly if you're a pregnant woman or if you have children, you need to know that you don't have to go through the backscatter. You can ask for some alternatives," Israel said, adding that there were currently about 250 full-body backscatter machines currently in use at 37 airports nationwide.
Opting out for safety's sake
Though there currently is a dearth of research on the issue, some experts have already concluded that the radiation-emitting machines are just not safe for public use, despite TSA's repeated assurances to the contrary.
"There is really no absolutely safe dose of radiation," says Dr. Dong Kim, chair of the department of neurosurgery at the University of Texas Medical School and the neurologist who treated Rep. Gabrielle Giffords when she was shot in the head by a crazed gunman in January 2010.
"Each exposure is additive, and there is no need to incur extra radiation when there is an alternative," Kim said, adding he always opts instead for the pat-down exam at TSA checkpoints when he flies.
He's not alone. Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, also says he opts out of the x-ray, citing concerns that the machines may not be properly calibrated and inspected in a timely manner.
The European Union isn't waiting for what its experts think is the inevitable body of research that says the scanners are not fit for human use; the EU banned the machines last year.