If you travel in the US you’ve likely passed through a whole-body millimeter wave and/or x-ray scanner. Although the government claims these devices are safe, that the health effects of such devices have been thoroughly investigated, the EU & UK have banned such technologies.

So, what’s the difference and what’s the potential problem?

  • Millimeter wave scanners use non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation similar to that used by wireless data transmitters, in the Extremely High Frequency (EHF) radio band (which is a lower frequency than visible light). The health risks posed by these machines are still being studied, and the evidence is mixed. While the force generated by the EHF waves is small, they can tear apart double-stranded DNA, creating bubbles in the DNA that could interfere with processes such as gene expression and DNA replication.
  • Backscatter X-ray machines use low dose penetrating radiation for detecting suspicious metallic and non-metallic objects hidden under clothing or in shoes and in the cavities of the human body.

Backscatter machines produce low-energy X-rays, which have a wavelength on the order of 1×10-10 meters; the evidence of negative health effects of x-rays is well accepted at this point, as evidenced by the EU’s ban on all airport x-ray scanners. But millimeter wave scanners produce microwaves with wavelengths that fall exactly between 10-4  meters (1 millimeter) and 10-3 meters (10 millimeters)- very similar to the microwave spectrum (perhaps they decided to call them millimeter wave scanners because the alternative would have immediately raised concern in people’s minds).

The belief is that long wavelengths don’t affect proteins and the DNA in eukaryotes (an organism whose cells contain a nucleus and other organelles enclosed within membranes- like us) and only have a thermal effect on tissue since it is in the “non-ionizing” class of radiation.

However, the power density of millimeter wave scanners fall between 10-8 and 10-7 W/cm2 and that becomes more significant once you read this Russian paper from 1993 showing that millimeter waves at power densities as low as 10-11 W/cm2 have an effect on DNA, RNA, & proteins.

From the article:

“It should be emphasized that the millimeter wave effects at the power density involved can not be explained by trivial heating. Statistically signifi­cant changes in CCS (chromatin conformational state aka DNA, RNA, and proteins) were induced by millimeter waves at 10-9 W/cm2.

Experimental evidence for the resonance effect of millimeter wave at very low intensity is another impor­tant result of this work. The power density dependence has a section of logarithmic growth from 10-11 to 10-7  W/cm2.

We also emphasize that, as in the case of E. coli cells, the CCS changes of rat thymocytes are determined, at a molecular level, by the changes in the cooperative binding of a number of structural and functional proteins to chromosomal DNA.”

It seems rather clear, given the Russian research, that these scanning devices are not safe. Until our government recognizes the negative health impacts and removes such devices from US airports, it’s probably best to opt out. There are alternatives. You have other options.

Source: Jason Prall and Zeitschrift für Naturforschung