Can Airport Scanners See Tumors?

credit: Andrea Starr | Pacific Northwest

Airport security authorities have installed full-body security scanners in most large airports. While the early versions of these caused privacy issues and some conspiracy theorists believed that they caused tumors, the truth is that the latest generation of scanners uses electromagnetic waves which can only penetrate the passengers’ clothing and cannot see under the skin.

Airport scanners only use noninvasive electromagnetic waves and cannot detect tumors in the human body. The full-body scanners deployed at many airports worldwide can only identify anomalies outside a body that protrudes and change the external profile.

Can Airport Scanner Identify Tumors?

Neither the older “backscatter” technology nor the current “Millimeter wave” scanning technology can detect anything behind the skin of a body.

The system works by reflecting energy from the skin back to the scanner; therefore, it is only the external profile of the passenger which is visible.

  1. The system may spot an anomaly that appears as a lump or protrusion from the body.
  2. The system can identify a change in textures on the body.
  3. The system is designed to highlight a change in density, which means that if there is a distinct change in hardness around the target area, the machine will alert the TSA official.

The purpose of the scan is to ensure that no contraband which may be used to harm fellow passengers is carried onto an aircraft. It means that metallic, liquid or other material is quickly spotted.

Passengers who have a tumor that can be seen on the outside of the body and is shaped differently or has a different density from the surrounding area will be identified by the airport scanner.

While there is no evidence of tumors being found, there are instances where some anomalies (such as localized swelling) have been spotted by the TSA.

Can You Fly If You Have Tumors?

No standardized measurement determines whether it is safe for a person to fly if they have tumors.

Patients who have received treatment for different types of tumors (whether they are malignant or not) should only travel if the condition has stabilized.

Where tumors are known to be malignant, and the person is under treatment, there is an increased risk of blood clots if the patient is forced to sit in a cramped position for long periods.

Patients with specific types of tumors, such as brain tumors, may experience more discomfort as the relative altitude in the aircraft changes. In some instances, the treating oncologist may prescribe steroids or anti-seizure drugs to be used before the flight.

Changes in air pressure can also cause the hands and feet to swell, and for patients with brain tumors, headaches may also be caused.

If you are receiving treatment for the tumor, ensure that you keep all your medication available in your hand luggage, which you take on board with you.

Can Tumor Medication Be Passed Through An Airport Scanner?

Some medications cannot be exposed to Airport Scanners. However, the TSA is aware of this and is equipped to check the contents in a non-intrusive manner.

If the medicine is in liquid form, some airlines may restrict the quantities which can be carried. In this instance, you must declare the quantities to the TSA with a copy of your prescription.

If you need to travel with syringes and injectable medication, these are allowed to be carried.

Passengers with a Chemotherapy Port, PIC Line, or Ostomy Port should explain these to the TSA agent before being scanned, as the scanners will detect them. The TSA are trained to be compassionate in these instances and will generally allow a pat down to be conducted if they feel necessary.

Are Airport Scanners The Same As Medical Devices?

The focus of airport scanners is to identify contraband or irregular shapes on passengers’ bodies, which, when found, are identified by a further pat down check by the security officials.

The staff manning the airport scanner are not trained diagnosticians (or even basic medical staff). Therefore, they are not qualified to make a medical pronouncement regarding any anomalies found.

Be careful if you are carrying medical marijuana or CBD oil, as these substances are still not allowed by the TSA (even if you have a medical note). While the TSA does not specifically search for these products, they will refer the case to the local law enforcement agency if they are found.

How Do Airport Scanners Work?

There were two reasons why the European Union banned using the older technology “backscatter” scanners.

  1. There were real privacy concerns because this equipment provided a detailed image of every part of the body, including the shape of the groin area, breasts, and external medical equipment such as colostomy bags.
  2. There was a belief that the machines exposed the passengers to an unacceptable risk of excessive radiation levels.

The more controllable millimeter wave scanners have replaced the older technology. This technology has received wide acceptance and is currently installed in more than 65 airports in America and most major airports worldwide.

Although the technology has the same, or better, ability to display the shape of body parts, the fact that the image is deciphered by a computer means that the systems can be programmed to remove any sensitive detail.

In addition, the US Congress has ruled that a board outline, similar to the shape of a gingerbread man, is the only image the system can display.

Millimeter wave scanners work by projecting an energy wave at the passenger. The energy is reflected back from the passenger, and a computer interprets it and displays the subsequent image.

The system highlights anomalies and provides an “all clear” or “check further” signal to the TSA officers.

What Type Of X-Ray Machines Are Needed To See Tumors?

Cancer cannot be easily identified or treated, and the equipment used and specialist knowledge applied in the detection and treatment is outside of the responsibilities and knowledge of the airport scanning staff.

A radiologist will use a medical x-ray machine to detect certain tumors under controlled medical conditions to identify possible tumorous masses.

Medical X-rays (Radiographs) are controlled by the radiographer, who sets the strength of the x-rays to different values depending on what body part is being imaged.

From this, a two-dimensional image is projected onto photographic plates and X-ray film and is mainly digitized for distribution to the medical treatment specialist.

A specialist radiologist inspects the resultant x-ray and identifies a tumor’s presence or lack thereof.

Once a tumor or other mass has been identified, the only way to definitively identify whether it is malignant is for a surgeon to take a biopsy or remove the entire mass and send it to a pathologist.

Once the sample has been sent to the pathologist, they will conduct tests under a microscope and perform complex processes looking for tumor markers.

This is clearly outside of the scope of the airport scanner staff.

Can A Passenger Get Cancer From An Airport Scanner?

The older generation of “backscatter” airport scanners has been banned in Europe and, more lately, in America because the energy which airport backscatter X-rays produced was a type of ionizing radiation.

While this ionizing radiation is considered carcinogenic, even in very small doses, the consequences were originally thought to be negligible at the doses used in airport scanners.

One study estimated that if 1,000,0000 passengers were exposed to ten scans a week for one year, there would be an additional four cancer diagnoses in that population sample.

The newer “Millimeter wave” airport scanners are not carcinogenic.

  1. They produce an even lower dose of radiation (five orders of magnitude less than “backscatter” airport scanners) which only penetrates the skin to 1mm.
  2. The radiation wave radiation is non-ionizing and is, therefore, n on carcinogenic.


Other radiation sources that passengers are exposed to under normal circumstances are three orders of magnitude more carcinogenic than “millimeter wave” airport scanners; these include the following.

  1. Ultraviolet rays.
  2. Mobile phone radiation.

Consequently, there is minimal risk of the newer “millimeter wave” airport scanners causing injury or disease to the passengers.