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Home News centre National Press Releases 2010 Press Releases ›  Spotlight on airport x-ray scanners

Spotlight on airport x-ray scanners

14 September 2010

Radiation from x-ray security scanners being used at some UK airports should not be a barrier to air travel, Health Protection Agency (HPA) scientists reveal at the agency's annual conference - Health Protection 2010 - at the University of Warwick.

Earlier this year the Government announced it wanted to see wider use of the devices at UK airports, in the wake of an attempted terror strike in the USA.

At present all travellers pass through a metal detector arch as part of routine checks - some passengers using airports in London and Manchester are also being selected for further security scanning.

Because some of these new devices deliver a dose of ionising radiation some concerns have been raised that travellers are being exposed to radiation.

But today, radiation scientists will put the doses delivered by the technology into context.

Axel Macdonald, of the HPA's Centre for Radiation, Chemicals and Environmental Hazards, said: "Since the start of the year a huge amount of attention has been paid to the use of x-ray security scanners in UK airports.

"Some people have been concerned about the privacy issues while others have raised fears about their health from further radiation exposure.

"What has not been widely reported in the coverage of this issue is that radiation doses from this technology are very small, especially when compared to those that air travellers receive from cosmic rays when flying.

"If Government opts to roll out this technology to all UK airports our advice to the travelling public would be - do not see this technology as a barrier to air travel."

The HPA is the Government's official adviser on the health effects of radiation and the Agency has worked with the Department for Transport (DfT) on the use of this technology at airports for many years.

But in January, and in the wake of the incident in America, scientists from the HPA were commissioned to prepare a formal assessment of ionising radiation doses from x-ray backscatter security scanners to members of the public.

Ionising radiation doses are usually measured in millisieverts (mSv) and each year, on average, a person living in the UK receives a dose of about 2.7 mSv from naturally occurring, and medical, radiation.

The HPA assessment for the DfT measured doses from backscatter systems and estimates that travellers going through one of the machines receive a dose of 0.000020 mSv per scan.

"When the doses from this technology are put into context people can see just how small this dose is," said Axel.

"A person going through a backscatter system is exposed to approximately 20 nanosieverts of radiation per scan. One million nanosieverts make up one millisievert.

"The body scan dose from a single scan gives travellers about the same amount of radiation as you get in 15 seconds from cosmic rays while flying at 35,000ft."


Notes to Editors

  • View the HPA's advice to air travellers
  • The HPA's assessment for the Department for Transport can be viewed at
  • Some of the scanners being trialed, the backscatter systems, use ionising radiation to scan. The millimeter wave system, also being trialed at selected airports, uses non-ionising radiation to scan would-be travellers.
  • A one way transatlantic flight exposes travellers to about 0.05mSv from cosmic rays while a chest x-ray delivers a dose of about 0.02mSv.
  • More information on annual average radiological doses 
  • For more information please contact the CRCE press office on 01235 822745/876/737.
  • About Health Protection 2010 The Health Protection Agency's annual conference - Health Protection 2010 - is being held at the University of Warwick from 14-15 September. The conference offers a variety of innovative presentations which will demonstrate the latest scientific research and its practical application in three key areas of health protection - preventing and reducing infectious diseases, minimising the impact of radiation, chemical and environmental hazards and preparing for potential or emerging threats to health. To find out more information visit

Last reviewed: 14 September 2010