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How Safe is the Full Body Scanner for Pregnant Women?

With all the talk and controversy against the new Transportation Security Agency’s (TSA) full body scanners, this begs the question – how safe are they for pregnant women? These full body scanners do emit radiation – after all, they are taking an x-ray of your body – but how much radiation do they emit? Will they cause harm to the pregnant woman and her developing baby?

Everyone knows that radiation is unhealthy for the everyday Joe and Jane. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warns that long-term, low-level exposure to radiation can cause mutations in your DNA, and it increases your risk of cancer. The DNA mutations can affect your health, and it can also be passed down to your future children. According to the EPA’s Website, there is no “safe” level of radiation exposure.

Radiation in Pregnancy

When you’re pregnant, your unborn baby is especially sensitive to radiation. According to the CDC, prenatal radiation exposure – i.e. exposure of the developing baby to radiation during pregnancy – has been linked to abnormal brain function in the baby, stunted growth in the womb, deformities and birth defects, and cancer that develops later in life.

Obviously, direct exposure to radiation – such as a pregnant woman accidentally swallowing or breathing in radioactive materials – is more harmful than indirect exposure.

Interestingly, your developing baby is more sensitive to radiation at specific stages of his or her development. Babies are especially sensitive to radiation exposure in the first trimester and early weeks of the second trimester – between conception and 15 weeks pregnant.

For example, if your baby is exposed to radiation in the first two weeks after conception – the baby is only a ball of cells at this point – the radiation can permanently damage one cell and cause you to miscarry. If your baby does survive, however, he or she may have birth defects, regardless of the level of radiation that you were exposed to.

If you are exposed to large doses of radiation (or the amount of radiation that you’d get with 500 chest x-rays) during the most sensitive weeks of fetal development – which is between 8 weeks and 15 weeks pregnant – your unborn baby will have brain damage, lower IQs, and even mental retardation. (Researchers discovered this after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.)

After 16 weeks pregnant, your developing baby’s risk of health effects due to radiation – not including cancer – is relatively low, unless you receive a huge dose of radiation (or over 5,000 chest x-rays).

Airport Full Body Scanners and Radiation Exposure in Pregnancy

The TSA argues that their full body scanners are safe, citing that you only receive 0.25 μSv per screening. (A single dental x-ray gives you 5 μSv of radiation). They argue that you can be screened up to 1,000 times a year without exceeding the annual “safety” limit, and that the risk of death from these full body screenings is only 1 in 80,000,000.

According to a news story from U.S. News, Peter Rez, a physics professor from Arizona State University, argues that the full body scanners emit a very low dose of radiation when it is working properly. However, if the body scanners were to jam, there’s a possibility that you could get a very high level dose of radiation. (Read that story here.)

The probability of the full body scanner harming your developing baby, if you’re in your second or third trimester, is low. The doses of radiation are not high enough to cause permanent damage to your pregnancy. However, you may want to be safer rather than sorry.

This means, unfortunately, you will have to endure the dreaded full body pat down.

Check out the Belly Band – Radiation Shield for Pregnant Women

While you probably shouldn’t worry too much about radiation exposure when you’re expecting, especially since most of us won’t have 500 chest x-rays during pregnancy, you may want to protect yourself with a new pregnancy garment called the Belly Band – a product from RadiaShield.

You can wear the Belly Band over or under your clothes during pregnancy. It is supposed to shield about 99.9 percent of incoming radiation, according to the company. It is made with 95 percent rayon, 5 percent spandex, and RadiaShield lining (which is a woven fabric made with 82 percent silver fiber).

I think it’s a nifty product. Available for $59 from the Belly Armor.

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About the author: DP Nguyen is founder and editor of Hip Chick’s Guide to PMS, Pregnancy and Babies. She’s an expert pregnancy and women’s health blogger. She is NOT a medical doctor and does NOT offer medical advice. Connect with her on Google+, Twitter and Facebook.

{ 7 comments… add one }
  • Douglas Habersaat January 25, 2016, 7:27 pm

    There is a whimsical unit of radiation known as the “Banana Equivalent Dose”. Yes, bananas are one of the most naturally radioactive foods in your grocery store as well as being one of the healthiest. One B.E.D., or the dose of radiation your receive from eating just one banana is considered to be 0.1 µSv. The exposure to radiation in an airport security checkpoint is completely negligible compared to eating two bananas. My personal radiation meter (geiger counter) peaked at 3.18 µSv/hr. at 35,000 ft. on a recent cross country trip by a jetliner.
    The irony is that the most radiation you will receive is in your own home from Radon gas, an intense alpha radiation emitter, for more dangerous than any X-Ray. Check the CDC website about Radon exposure from poorly ventilated homes. Also, the radiation energy of the backscatter x-ray units was only 50,000 eV (and these units are being phased out for being too slow and being replaced by millimeter wave scanners with an energy of 1/1000,000,000 eV.) while the the radiation from the potassium in bananas is over 1,000,000 eV and the alpha radiation from the radon is your own home is at an energy of over 6,000,000 eV.
    By the numbers, you are much safer from radiation at any security checkpoint than either your own home or up in the air being bombarded by cosmic rays!
    Lastly, low energy radiation can barely penetrate the outer layers of your skin. The radiation from a banana can get inside you where any “possible” damage would be far more intense. Don’t be afraid, as I said before bananas are a very healthy food.
    Any doubts? Check the facts out for yourself and carry your own personal radiation meter as I do.

  • fertility medicine March 16, 2011, 9:40 pm

    Is airport full body scan safe for pregnant women? … it is a big undertaking to swap out the magnetometer for the full body scanner.

  • Alexandra January 25, 2011, 3:08 am

    That’s a pretty cheap way to keep the babies safe! I think it’s concerning because moms to be are often told to stay away from a microwave while it’s on. When my kids were getting dental x-rays I was told to leave the room. When I had to get x-rays I had to wear a shield. I’m surprised they offer nothing to pregnant passengers, even if it is…safe.

  • Alexandra January 25, 2011, 3:08 am

    That’s a pretty cheap way to keep the babies safe! I think it’s concerning because moms to be are often told to stay away from a microwave while it’s on. When my kids were getting dental x-rays I was told to leave the room. When I had to get x-rays I had to wear a shield. I’m surprised they offer nothing to pregnant passengers, even if it is…safe.

  • kortneyfitness November 24, 2010, 9:29 pm

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  • Mrs. O'Neill - March November 24, 2010, 4:47 pm

    Great blog!! just stumbled on you today via bloggy moms 🙂

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