© Transportation Security Administration
County worried about radiation

Federal officials insisted Tuesday that X-ray scanners used at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport are safe for travelers, but Broward County commissioners weren't convinced.

On a split vote Tuesday, a majority of commissioners asked the federal Transportation Security Administration to do more to assure Broward's travelers that the X-ray scanners are safe, or to ban them from use if they're not.

The county's request of the TSA: Find the studies that led Europe to ban the scanners, and explain why the TSA agrees or disagrees; determine whether frequent fliers are at a higher cancer risk from passing through the scanners, and if so, post alerts at the airport informing frequent fliers about how many scans a week might be safe; and if the TSA finds the European Union's studies show a heightened risk, consider banning the use of the backscatter scanners here.

With those actions, Broward County and its airport become the first in the United States to take a stand in an international debate about the so-called "backscatter" airport security scanners, which some studies say would cause cancer in a few travelers out of the millions who fly each year.

Only 40 airports in the United States have the controversial backscatter machines, which use low-level ionic X-ray beams, the TSA said. An additional 60, including airports in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, have scanners that use millimeter wave technology - low-level radio waves considered safe.

Commissioner Ilene Lieberman said she didn't trust the government's assurances and studies, because history is full of examples of products the public was told were safe, but were not. The government once approved saccharin and red food dye for public consumption, and asbestos was routinely used for insulation, she said, but all were found to cause cancer and pulled from the market.

Mayor John Rodstrom, a frequent flier who brought the item forward, said despite the time he spent over the past week with TSA officials, he's "still not sold."

"I'm already getting bombarded with all this radiation," he said. "I don't want any more."

The county's move this month was prompted by the Nov. 14 edict of the European Union, saying that "in order not to risk jeopardising citizens' health and safety, only security scanners which do not use X-ray technology" can be used to screen passengers there.

TSA local Federal Security Director Tim Lewis spoke publicly Tuesday, reading from a lengthy statement citing numerous studies that found the X-ray levels fall under the thresholds for concern. He repeated the agency's oft-cited statistic: that the dose is the radiation equivalent of about two minutes of flying at altitude.

"TSA would not use technology that could jeopardize the health of passengers or our employees," he said.

ProPublica/PBS NewsHour reported this month that the TSA had downplayed research that said the scanners could lead to a small number of cancer cases. The investigative reports questioned why the agency uses the X-ray scanners instead of solely using the radiowave machines, which the TSA says are equally effective in detecting explosives a passenger might be carrying.

Tuesday's vote in favor was: Mayor John Rodstrom and commissioners Ilene Lieberman, Dale Holness, Sue Gunzburger, and Lois Wexler. Against, and favoring the status quo: Kristin Jacobs, Chip LaMarca, Barbara Sharief, Stacy Ritter.

Ritter said she hated to "sound like a Republican here, in fact it kills me," but "there is some personal responsibility here."

If travelers study the issue and decide they don't want to go through the scanners, they don't have to. They can opt for a thorough pat-down.

She said she trusted what the TSA said.

"Are you going to throw out every study because there's one you don't like?" she asked. "Are we as government officials going to say we don't believe government? Well, I won't say that."