Air Travel and Security Scanners During Pregnancy: Are They Safe?

February 17, 2012 Guest Blogger 1 comment


Expectant mothers know to avoid certain harmful practices and radiation exposures while pregnant, like being around cigarette smoke or having medical scans. Since customers are exposed to radiation during airline flights and at airport security check points, many women may also wonder about the safety of air travel during pregnancy.

The concern about radiation exposure is a valid question. First, it’s important to understand radiation exposure from air travel in perspective to other exposures all around us. For example, people living near coal or nuclear power plants or sources of radon experience higher levels of exposure than those who do not. Medical scans have a wide range of exposure levels (i.e. a CT scan of the head emits 400 times more radiation than a dental x-ray). Even cell phones and laptops emit radiation. Curious about your phone? Click here to view the results of the Environmental Working Group’s research.

So, with radiation all around us and some we can control and some we cannot, how does air travel fit in? There are two main areas of concern: security scanners that use x-ray technology and the flight itself. (Please note this information is aimed toward pregnant women who may fly occasionally for pleasure or business, not those who fly regularly, such as pilots or flight attendants. If your job requires you to spend many hours on a plane, you may wish to talk with your provider.)

Airport Security Scanners

The airport scanners that are raising the most questions and concern use backscatter x-rays and are referred to in airports as “whole body imagers”, “body scanners”, or simply “security scanners.” The TSA started using this technology in 2007 and the scanners are now in place in over 90 airports in the United States, including Atlanta. Prior to 2007, ordinary metal detectors were used at most security checkpoints, which could not detect all threats to air travel. In terms of reducing these threats, the new scanners are second only to physical body searches or “pat downs”. In order for them to be so accurate, these scanners use a type of ionizing radiation to detect radiation reflected from a person to create an image on the screen (vs. a traditional x-ray that transmits the radiation through the person in order to get a picture).

One type of Backscatter x-ray scanner

Since they use radiation, there is a lot of controversy surrounding the safety of security scanners to the passengers who pass through them. The devices have been deemed safe for use by many government agencies and laboratories, such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH), the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST), and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL). The research showed that the small amount of radiation received during one full-body scan, lasting approximately 8 seconds, is equal to the amount of radiation received in 2 minutes of a flight. For more information, click on the above agency links and read this article about “Are Full-Body Airport Scanners Safe?”.

On the other side of the issue are radiation experts and organizations, such as imaging and oncology experts at the University of California, San Francisco and the Inter-Agency Committee on Radiation Safety (IACRS), which includes a number of international agencies, such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). They believe the technology needs more government-independent research. Among their concerns is the safety for specific members of the population, such as the elderly, those whose immune systems do not function properly (i.e. those receiving chemotherapy or patients with HIV), children, and pregnant women.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) also states the following on their website:

“To date, airport security radiation exposure is minimal for pregnant women and has not been linked to an increase in   adverse outcomes for unborn children. However, because of early reports of a possible association of radiation exposure during pregnancy with subsequent increased risk of childhood leukemia and cancer, a pregnant passenger may request a hand or wand search rather than being exposed to the radiation of the airport security machines.”

If you do not wish to go through the whole body scanner, as mentioned above, you have the right to request a physical search from a TSA employee by hand or wand. If you choose this option, allow for some extra time at the security checkpoint. From a personal perspective, this is what I did last fall (I was 12 weeks pregnant) and traveling with my 15-month old son. Pregnant women and children have flown for decades, so I’m not concerned about the flight itself, but I am concerned about the new scanners given all the controversy and questions surrounding them.

Flight Safety

According to the Mayo Clinic, air travel itself is safe for pregnant women with uncomplicated, normal pregnancies, though many providers and/or airlines restrict travel after 36 weeks. Most providers also recommend flying during the second trimester when you are likely to feel the best and the chances of miscarriage and pre-term labor are the lowest.

Passengers are exposed to radiation from space when flying in airplanes because the earth’s atmosphere is unable to shield the radiation at high altitudes as well as low altitudes. You can use this link to calculate the amount of radiation you will receive on a flight. Just as with the airport scanners, the amount of radiation you should receive is extremely low and is not thought to cause harm to the average traveler.

When traveling by air, keep the following tips in mind for your comfort:

  • An aisle seat usually allows for more space
  • A seat mid-plane usually allows for a smoother ride than those at the forward or rear of the plane
  • Walk about every 30 minutes to keep blood flowing in your legs and to prevent swelling or blood clots
  • Stay hydrated

Click here for information from the CDC about travel and the above tips for pregnant women. Also, remember to research local hospitals in the event that you need to seek care while traveling and make a plan with your provider for protection against regional disease outbreaks especially when traveling internationally.

If you find yourself questioning the safety of air travel during pregnancy, I encourage you to do your own research and talk with your provider. There is so much information on the internet on this topic, that this blog barely skims the surface. If you decide air travel is not for you, maybe you can take some extra time for a nice sightseeing trip by car or train.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

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