Welcome back to Freak-Out Fridays, where wellness experts weigh in on just how much you should worry about modern health saboteurs. This week, we talked to two doctors with differing views, so that you can make an informed decision. Struggling with your own quandary? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q: I’m traveling a ton this summer, and going through multiple full-body scanners at airports. Should I be worried about the radiation?
One doctor's take: I travel a lot, and no matter how much of a rush I'm in at the airport, I never go through the full body scanners—period. I think the safety data on these scanners is very inconclusive, and scientists at major research institutes have raised serious concerns about their potential risks.
We're exposed to cosmic radiation when we fly at high altitudes, so with this in mind, it’s important to minimize other forms of radiation. With cosmic radiation, however, exposure is low grade and gradual, intensifying slowly over the course of 15-20 minutes as you climb in altitude, so your body has some time to adjust and protect itself a bit better. (Note that an increase in cosmic radiation is not entirely safe. People who fly over a certain number of miles per year are shown to be at increased risk of leukemia and other cancers.)
With the full-body scanners, on the other hand, you get a very sudden burst of radiation. There are ways to protect your cells and DNA repair mechanisms with hydration, antioxidants, medicinal mushrooms, vitamin C, and other nutrients that prevent inflammation and cellular damage. But it's hard to protect against the sudden spike in radiation you get from the full body scanners.
While radiation is not safe in general, the real dangers are with people who have a compromised ability to repair the damages caused by radiation. We all have repair mechanisms, but when we are older or have chronic diseases, or are on certain medications that suppress the immune system, these mechanisms are weaker and we’re much more vulnerable. So for these people especially, the sudden spike in radiation can potentially take them “over the edge.”
Radiation is all around us, in the form of electromagnetic waves, cellular signals, and WiFi, at levels deemed safe by the government. However, as an integrative physician, I disagree with the concept of safe radiation levels, because in my opinion, constant exposure from these common sources can have cumulative negative effects on our health.
Isaac Eliaz, MD, is a health educator, researcher, licensed acupuncturist, and integrative physician. As Director of Amitabha Medical Clinic in Northern California, Eliaz specializes in the strategic integration of Western and Eastern approaches for detoxification, chronic illness, and mind-body medicine.
Another doctor weighs in: First things first: Any level of radiation is not ideal. However, health issues are always about a risk/benefit ratio. Here, the risks are to your health, and the benefit of having these full-body scanners is to society's safety—and maybe to your convenience, too, since getting patted down takes longer than going through the machine.
We’re constantly exposed to health threats. Personally, I don’t worry too much about security scanners, and I go through them myself. At the same time, I definitely wouldn’t like to go back and forth in that scanner three times a day. I’m more concerned about the people working around them than casual travelers.
The government wouldn’t put into operation a scanner that hadn’t been thoroughly evaluated by physicists and radiation experts—that would be ludicrous. Independent research suggests the level of radiation exposure is safe. My take is this: If you travel a few times a year, radiation from a scanner should not be your biggest concern. If you fly a few times a week, you might want to think about asking for a pat-down. In terms of threats to your health, I’m much more concerned about the food you eat three times a day, every day, than I am about the radiation exposure you get from going through the occasional scanner.
Steven Lamm, MD, (known to millions as the doctor The View) is a clinical researcher and a practicing internist and faculty member at New York University School of Medicine. He’s also the author of No Guts, No Glory.