I told my son “Don’t let them do it!”

What’s the biggest problem facing airline travelers today?

Ask this question and many would say it’s the long wait at airports, removing shoes, extensive screening procedures and that “damn pat-down” by airport personnel. But during the public uproar about airport security some travelers will make a huge mistake.

The U.S. is replacing many metal detectors with more sophisticated equipment, better described as Personal Exposure Devices. In effect, the technology can detect articles beneath the clothing along with you-know- what, and this infuriates many travelers.

There are two types of scanners. The millimeter wave machine is safe, creating an image of the body by using electromagnetic waves. The other, “backscatter” devices use low energy X-rays to produce a picture of the body. These are not so safe.

The first thing I did when I read about these new scanners was to call my son, a frequent flyer. My advice was simple, “Don’t let them X-ray you. Let them pat you down as much as they like, but no X-rays.”

The last thing he and other flyers need is more radiation.

As you might expect, the U.S. government says that the amount of radiation exposure is minimal. It claims the amount the body receives is the same as natural radiation exposure from two minutes of flying. But some authorities believe the radiation dose is higher.

Experts say backscatter machines use low energy X-rays. This means that ‘most’ of the radiation is absorbed by the skin and unlike medical X-rays does not enter the body. This does not reassure me one bit.

And since it’s absorbed by the skin, will it cause skin cancer years from now?

The word ‘most’ always worries me. It invariably recalls the time I was urging the legalization of heroin to ease the agony of terminal cancer patients. My critics, and there were many, argued heroin was not needed as morphine eased the pain of ‘most’ cancer patients.

They never acknowledged what happened if you were not one of the ‘most’ group.

Other problems worry me more. Years ago a research paper was leaked to me that was shocking. It reported a study that found some X-ray equipment in Canada was exposing patients to 90 times the normal radiation required for the procedure! In fact, the dose was reaching lethal limits! It was unconscionable that no government agency was alerting the public to this problem.

But the problem was not merely faulty machines. Poorly trained technicians were pushing buttons that caused increased radiation exposure. The worst mistake of all, health agencies had failed to inspect X-ray equipment machines for years. My column led to a commission to correct these glaring errors.

Could this same scenario occur with airport backscatter devices? I don’t see how anyone can guarantee a malfunctioning machine or careless technicians won’t eventually expose passengers to high doses of radiation.

So what error will flyers make? Authorities say that passengers can refuse to have a backscatter search and opt for the metal detector. But if they choose this course they must agree to a personal pat down.

This adds time, so many harried flyers will opt for the X-ray search to get quickly through the gate. It’s a bad mistake as radiation is cumulative and the body can only handle so much before cancer strikes.

I find it humorous that so many people are annoyed at being subjected to a pat down. Or having their “you-know-what” seen during a backscatter procedure. Can it be that men are afraid that their “you-know-whats” don’t quite measure up to standards?

My advice is to forget Victorian modesty. Rather, avoid radiation like the plague. Remember a small hole can sink a large ship. Too many bits of a “little radiation” can produce long-term health risks. Take the pat down every time. You might even get to like it! Or as one person remarked, “Look on it as a free massage.”

“What’s was the most important column in 2010?” a reader asks. It’s one that could save millions of lives and is now featured on the web site www.docgiff.com. For comments, go to info@docgiff.com.

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