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X-Ray True or False

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X-ray scanners are ubiquitous at secure sites around the world, but many x-ray misconceptions persist. This article will explore x-ray true and false, as well as the safety, risks, and benefits of x-ray security technology and the reality behind x-ray myths.

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UNDERSTANDING X-RAYS & EXPOSURE

First, x-rays are simply a wavelength of light. Everyone is exposed to the entire spectrum of electromagnetic (EM) radiation almost every day, just in varying combinations and doses. High frequency wavelengths of EM radiation are known as “ionizing radiation.” Ionizing radiation poses risk in extremely high dosages, but low dosages are an everyday occurrence. The sun exposes every human to some amount of ionizing radiation at all times, but the dosage is low enough so as to be negligible. Taking a plane flight can expose one to more of this “background radiation”, however it still is not enough to cause noticeable health risks.

X-ray scanning machines limit the possible exposure through the use of extensive lead shielding. The dose of x-rays that actually escapes the shielding is very small, and those x-rays are controlled for use in the scanning process. Any scattered radiation that may escape is reduced to such a small amount that it would be barely more noticeable than background radiation.

X-ray exposure is measured in Microsieverts (µSv)  and Millisieverts (mSv). A dental x-ray image is a dosage of ~5µSv, an average 5-hour plane flight is ~35µSv, a chest x-ray is ~100µSv, a heart CT angiography scan is ~8,700µSv (8.7mSv), and the yearly dose for a smoker consuming 1.5 packs of cigarettes per day is ~36,000µSv (36mSv). Comparatively, the dosage to the public of an Astrophysics scanner (including our HXP Series truck scanner) is ~0.1µSv, or the equivalent of eating 1 banana.

EFFECT ON OBJECTS & FOOD

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Nearly all personal belongings that people bring through security are completely unaffected by x-ray scanners. To understand why this is the case, it is important to know what it means to say that x-rays are ionizing radiation. When x-rays pass through matter, they transfer some of that energy to the atoms they contact. This can expel electrons from the target atoms, thus making those atoms “ionized.” Ionized atoms are much more chemically reactive than non-ionized atoms. 

Most common scanned objects (i.e. clothes, toiletries, food, etc.) do not absorb a lot of radiation, so the risk of ionization in any significant amount is infinitesimal. Electronics like laptops, phones, and tablets can be damaged by extremely high doses of x-rays because of the risk to the silicon chips, but even then the risk is negligible. Silicon chips inside modern electronics are extremely thin, and silicon in general does not absorb x-rays well. X-ray security scanners, including those manufactured by Astrophysics, use as few x-rays as possible to gather scan data. The amount of radiation that could be absorbed by scanned personal electronics is so small as to be essentially zero.

For those who are worried about carrying food through an x-ray scanner, there is no risk to edible items from x-rays. EM radiation is completely safe for all types of food items. Every day, millions of pounds of food items pass through cargo x-ray scanners across the globe.

PRIVACY & PEOPLE

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Security scanner manufacturers have strived for decades to maintain the privacy of the public without sacrificing security effectiveness. While the most prominent criticisms apply primarily to millimeter-wave body scanners, the x-ray scanner industry has sought to develop privacy-preserving features nonetheless.

Even without active privacy protections, personal identifying information is unlikely to be captured in a traditional x-ray image. Even low-energy x-rays easily penetrate most of the human body, making it next to impossible to capture specific body shapes or facial features. In addition, x-ray scanners are incapable of reading printed or written information as x-rays pass right through ink; even embossed or etched writing is practically invisible in an x-ray scan image which ensures the confidentiality of any scanned documents.

In addition, active software protections have been implemented in recent years. Limited storage of images, anonymized body scans, and strict access controls can contribute to maintaining the privacy of the public. These are some of the tools made available by manufacturers. However, the responsibility and authority for maintaining privacy in any security scanning environment falls on the operator and their organization.


X-RAYS ARE SAFE & SECURE

X-ray security scanning technology is ultimately a safe and necessary tool that enables governments, organizations, and businesses to detect threats. Public spaces are subjected to many potential threats every single day, and it is the duty of the security industry to protect those spaces and the people within them. X-ray scanners are powerful tools that are simultaneously more effective at detecting threats than other inspection tools and less dangerous or invasive than the same. Through the development of ever more effective scanning tools, the world is made a safer place now and long into the future.

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