Airport Scanners Pose a Radiation Risk

popsci.com

A group of scientists from the University of California-San Francisco is worried that a new generation of airport security scanners could present a cancer risk, NPR reports. But skeptics say people flying at 30,000 feet are already bombarded by cosmic rays, so a brief trip through an X-ray machine on the way to the plane is a drop in the radiation bucket.

After the “underwear bomber” incident on Christmas, the Obama administration ramped up deployment of advanced scanners that can spot explosives or weapons, NPR says. Some 1,000 new machines will be in use by the end of next year, roughly half of which are X-ray back-scatter scanners. The machines, which can look beneath passengers’ clothes, expose passengers to ionizing radiation for about six seconds.

So far, much of the concern about the scanners has come from privacy advocates — the scanners produce a detailed image of a person’s body without clothes. But David Agard, a biochemist and biophysicist at UCSF, says they may present a health risk, too. He wrote a letter last month to Obama science adviser John Holdren, asking for a more thorough review of the scanners’ potential health risks.

“Ionizing radiation such as the X-rays used in these scanners have the potential to induce chromosome damage, and that can lead to cancer,” Agard says in the letter.

The scanners’ potential harm comes from the low energies at which they operate. Most of the energy is delivered to the skin and immediately underlying tissue, Agard writes. If the dose were distributed throughout the entire body, it would be safe, but a targeted dose to the skin is too high, he says.

Certain people might be at a particularly high risk of cancer from radiation exposure, including the elderly; a small percentage of people with DNA anomalies, who represent about 5 percent of the population; HIV and current cancer patients; and children, Agard says.

But the Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Army Public Health Command and researchers at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory have said the machines are safe, according to the Transportation Security Administration.

NPR quoted an FDA radiation specialist who said the scanners put out far less radiation than what passengers get from cosmic rays. He told NPR one screening would be equivalent to spending four minutes in the air.

But Agard attacks that assumption, too, saying cosmic rays and chest X-rays are absorbed by the whole body. X-ray scanners that deposit their energy into the skin represent a different dose, targeted to a certain area, and their effects are not as well understood, he says.

David Brenner, head of Columbia University’s Center for Radiological Research, also expressed concern about the scanners during a recent a congressional hearing. He said the government should invest in millimeter-wave scanners, which have no known radiation risks. They produce images using radio waves rather than X-rays, and the TSA says the images are comparable in quality to the X-ray scanners. The cost is comparable, too, according to NPR.

The government has prepared a response to Agard’s concerns, but he hasn’t gotten it yet, according to NPR. Agard says further studies are needed.

“After review of the available data we have already obtained, we suggest that additional critical information be obtained, with the goal to minimize the potential health risks of total body scanning,” he writes.

U.S. Senate Also Covering-up Oil spill

Global Research

On Tuesday, the US senate began hearings into the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which took the lives of 11 workers in an April 20oil spillexplosion and has since poured millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, threatening the region with an environmental and economic catastrophe.

Appearing before the Energy and Natural Resources Committee in the morning and the Environmental and Public Health Committee in the afternoon were executives from the three corporations implicated in the disaster: Lamar McKay, president of the US operations of BP, which owned the oil and the drill site; Steven Newman, president of Transocean, the contractor that owned the rig and employed most of its workers; and Tim Probert, an executive with Halliburton, which contracted for the work of cementing the rig’s wellhead one mile beneath ocean’s surface.

The hearing resembled a falling out among thieves, with multi-millionaire executives—who, until April 20, had collaborated in thwarting basic safety and environmental considerations—each blaming the other for the explosion.

McKay of BP blamed Transocean. “Transocean owned the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig and its equipment, including the blowout preventer,” he said. “Transocean’s blowout preventer failed to operate.” Newman flatly denied that the blowout preventer was responsible for the disaster, shifting blame to BP, which he said controlled the operation, and Halliburton, which was responsible for the cementing around the well cap. “The one thing we know with certainty is that on the evening of April 20 there was a sudden, catastrophic failure of the cement, the casing, or both,” Newman said. Probert of Halliburton pushed back, indicating that BP and Transocean had moved forward operations before cementing was adequately set.

There was, in fact, some harmony between the accounts offered by the executives of Halliburton and Transocean, both of whom appeared to suggest that BP ordered the skipping of a usual step in offshore drilling—the placing of a cement plug inside the well to hold explosive gases in place. That this step was passed over was corroborated by two workers on the rig, who spoke to the Wall Street Journal on condition of anonymity. The workers also told the Journal that BP first cleared the decision with the US Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service (MMS). Both BP and the MMS refused comment to the Journal.

Robert Bea, a University of California at Berkeley engineering professor, has gathered testimony from Deepwater Horizon survivors that indicates the rig was hit by major bursts of natural gas, promoting fears of an explosion just weeks before the April 20 blast, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports. This raised concerns about whether mud at the well head should be replaced by much lighter seawater prior to installation of a concrete plug. The decision to proceed won out, according to information gathered by Bea.

Whatever the immediate cause of the disaster, the clear thrust of the hearings was to focus public outrage on a single, correctable “mistake,” such as a mechanical failure or regulatory oversight, in order to obscure the more fundamental reasons for the disaster: the decades-long gutting of regulation carried out by both Republicans and Democrats at the behest of the oil industry that made such a catastrophe all but inevitable.

A similar calculation lay behind Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s Tuesday announcement that the MMS, which ostensibly regulates offshore oil drilling, will be split into two units—one that collects the estimated $13 billion in annual royalties from the nation’s extractive industries, and one that enforces safety and environmental regulations. Salazar’s claim that this would eliminate “conflicts of interest” in government regulation was nervy, to say the least, coming from a man with long-standing and intimate ties with oil and mining concerns, including BP.

Indeed, more farcical than the executives’ recriminations against each other was the spectacle of senators attempting to pose as tough critics of the oil industry. The US Senate, like the House of Representatives, the Department of the Interior, and the White House, is for all intents and purposes on the payroll of BP and the energy industry as a whole. Among the senators sitting on the two committees who have received tens of thousands in campaign cash from BP and the oil industry are Richard Shelby (Republican, Alabama), Mary Landrieu (Democrat, Louisiana), John McCain (Republican, Arizona) and Lisa Murkowski (Republican, Alaska).

One of the few truthful moments in the hearings came when an exasperated Murkowski told the executives, “I would suggest to all three of you that we are all in this together.” Murkowski and Landrieu also expressed concerns that the disaster could compromise offshore drilling.

None with even a passing familiarity of the workings of Washington or the Senate can have any doubt that Tuesday’s hearings were but the opening of a government whitewash. The ultimate aim is to shield the major industry players and the financial interests that stand behind them from any serious consequences.

The assemblage of the guilty parties inside the Senate chambers took place as ruptured pipes on the ocean floor continued to gush forth oil at a rate conservatively estimated at 220,000 gallons per day some 40 miles off Louisiana’s coast. The rate could be many times greater, but arriving at a more accurate estimate is impossible because BP has refused to release its underwater video footage for independent analysis.

BP, which is liable for cleanup costs, has all but admitted it has no idea of how to stop the leak. Its attempt last weekend to lower a four story box over the piping failed when ice crystals clogged a portal at the structure’s roof, a result that was widely anticipated. BP is now considering lowering a much smaller box in order to avoid icing. US Coast Guard and BP representatives have also floated the idea of a “junk shot,” firing golf balls, tire shreds, and other refuse at high pressure into the well.

The drilling of two relief wells continues, with the aim of disrupting the flow of oil from the current well. This option will take a minimum of 90 days, during which 18 million gallons more oil will pour out at the low-end estimate. Even this option provides no certainty. “The risks include unpredictable weather, since the wells will be operational at the start of hurricane season,” according to a report in the Christian Science Monitor. “The wells are also being drilled into the same mix of oil and gas that caused the original explosion, and operating two wells in the area creates the potential of igniting a second explosion that is more powerful.”

If the spill cannot be stopped—a distinct possibility—the ruptured well could release a large share of the deposit’s underground reserves into the Gulf of Mexico, which totals upwards of 100 million barrels of crude oil. And even if the spill is stopped at a lesser volume, with each day there is a growing probability that the oil will devastate the entire Gulf from Louisiana to Florida and possibly reach the Gulf Stream, impacting the Atlantic seaboard.

In the interim, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has given BP clearance to resume pumping chemical dispersants into the oil column as it emerges from the broken piping. BP also continues to dump large quantities of dispersant onto the ocean’s surface. The environmental impact of such heavy use of dispersants is unknown, but a growing number of scientists and environmental groups are warning that the highly toxic substance could simply be transferring the brunt of the spill from the shore to marine ecosytems.

“The companies love the idea of using a chemical to spray on an oil slick to sink it,” Rick Steiner, a former professor of Marine Conservation at the University of Alaska, told the World Socialist Web Site. “It’s ‘out of sight out of mind’ as far as the public is concerned because TV cameras can’t see it. This is the big oil company playbook: public relations, litigation protection, and image.”

Oil has now washed ashore in three places: the Chandeleur Islands off Louisana’s coast, on the coast of a navigable channel from the Mississippi River known as the “South Pass,” and on Alabama’s Dauphin Island. Fishing has been blocked over a wide area, effectively imposing layoffs on thousands of fishermen, many of whom are self-employed and therefore not entitled to unemployment benefits. Sightings of birds covered in oil and dead sea turtles washed ashore have increased in recent days.

In his testimony, McKay boasted that BP would make available “grants of $25 million to Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida,” and that it has paid out approximately $3.5 million in damage claims to those affected by the spill. These figures, presented as an act of enormous magnanimity, are such a tiny share of BP’s revenues as to be almost inconsequential.

The company took home $93 million per day in profits—for a total of $6.1 billion—during the first quarter alone. The $3.5 million in damage claims paid out are significantly less than CEO Tony Hayward’s 2009 compensation, estimated at over $4,700,000 by Forbes.

Bill & Melinda Gates fund Population Reduction Programs

Foundation Funds 78 New Innovative Global Health Projects, Including Cell Phone Blood Tests, Male Sperm Depletion Ultrasound, and Sweat-Triggered Vaccines.  Grants from 18 countries poised to help prevent and diagnose infectious disease and promote family health

Bill & Melinda Foundation

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation today announced 78 grants of US$100,000 each in the latest round of Grand Challengesgates foundationExplorations. Grants include the development of a low-cost cell phone microscope to diagnose malaria, study of the strategic placement of insect-eating plants to reduce insect-borne diseases, and investigation of nanoparticles to release vaccines when they come in contact with human sweat. The grants support research across 18 countries and six continents.“Grand Challenges Explorations continues to generate unique and creative ways to tackle global health issues,” said Dr. Tachi Yamada, president of the Gates Foundation’s Global Health Program. “We are convinced that some of these ideas will lead to new innovations and eventually solutions that will save lives.”This year’s European grantees are based at universities, research institutes and non-profit organizations. The winners represent groups in Germany, Sweden, Norway and the UK.

Some examples of the breadth of projects funded this round include:

More effective vaccines:

  • Sweat-triggered vaccine delivery: Carlos Alberto Guzman of the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research in Germany with Claus-Michael Lehr and Steffi Hansen of the Helmholtz-Institute for Pharmaceutical Research will develop nanoparticles that penetrate the skin through hair follicles and burst upon contact with human sweat to release vaccines.
  • A “seek-and-destroy” laser vaccine: Owain Millington and Gail McConnell of University of Strathclyde in the United Kingdom will use existing imaging systems to identify and destroy Leishmania parasites with a targeted laser;
  • Treating worm infections to improve vaccine effectiveness: Susanne Nylén Spoormaker of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden will research whether treating patients for worm infections prior to vaccinations can improve the ability of the immune system to respond effectively to vaccines.

New strategies to fight malaria:

    • Insecticide-treated traditional scarves: David Sintasath of the Malaria Consortium in Thailand will research whether treating traditional scarves worn by migrant workers along the Thai-Cambodia border with insecticides will reduce the rate of drug-resistant malaria.
    • Using carnivorous plants to control mosquitoes: Jasper Ogwal-Okeng of Makerere University in Uganda will test whether insect-eating plants can reduce the population of malaria transmitting mosquitoes and their larvae.

Cell phone microscope to diagnose malaria: Aydogan Ozcan of the University of California, Los Angeles in the U.S. will test a low-cost, compact cell phone microscope to diagnose malaria in field settings.

Solutions to promote family health:

  • Ultrasound as a reversible male contraceptive: James Tsuruta and Paul Dayton of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in the U.S. will study the ability of ultrasound to temporarily deplete testicular sperm counts for possible use as new contraceptive method for men.
  • Vitamin A probiotics to combat diarrhea: Douglas Watson and colleagues of SRI International in the U.S. will develop probiotic bacteria that produce Vitamin A to stimulate a healthy gastrointestinal tract in children and reduce diarrheal diseases, the second-leading cause of childhood death.

Grand Challenges Explorations is a five-year, $100 million initiative to promote innovation in global health. It is part of the Grand Challenges in Global Health initiative which is supported by the Gates Foundation to achieve major breakthroughs in global health.Applications for the next round of Grand Challenges Explorations are being accepted through May 19, 2010. Topics for Round 5 are:

  • Create Low-Cost Cell Phone-Based Applications for Priority Global Health Conditions
  • Create New Technologies to Improve the Health of Mothers and Newborns
  • Create New Ways to Protect Against Infectious Disease
  • Create New Technologies for Contraception

Grant application instructions, including the list of topic areas in which proposals are currently being accepted, are available at the Grand Challenges Explorations website: www.grandchallenges.org.