NEW YORK -- Parents flying with their children over the holiday face tough decisions on how to deal with enhanced airport security measures, potentially having to choose between new full-body scanners that emit radiation or pat-downs that require their children to be touched by strangers.
The decision is made more difficult because experts disagree on which method is best for the child.
If directed to a full-body scanner, children, like adults, must pass through or be patted down by Transportation Security Administration personnel. While the American Academy of Pediatrics hasn't taken an official position, a member of the group's executive committee on radiology said this week she would opt for a pat-down.
"Because they are young and have more of a life span to receive radiation and it's cumulative, we all have to be concerned," said pediatrician and pediatric radiologist Gisela Mercado-Deane of San Antonio.
But an American College of Radiology spokesman said he'd have "no qualms" taking his children through the scanners, saying that a person would need more than 1,000 such scans to reach a dose of radiation equal to a standard chest X-ray. One scan is equal to about 2 to 4 minutes of flying at 30,000 feet, said Mahadevappa Mahesh, an associate professor of radiology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. "They are getting much more radiation from air travel."
Originally, pat-downs were identical for adults and children, and were widely reported to include contact along the thighs. "After listening to parents' concerns, we did modify the pat-down for children 12 and younger," said TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis.
"I would encourage the children to go through the scanner," said Wendy Doret, a Dix Hills, N.Y., psychologist. "With the scanner ... it would be just like walking through the metal detectors, which children are used to ... I don't think it would be a healthy thing for a child to be patted down."
Two types of scanners are being used. The controversial "backscatter" machine employs X-ray radiation as passengers stand between what looks like two closet-sized wardrobes and hold their hands overhead. The second type uses electromagnetic waves and looks like a revolving door.
The TSA uses the two types of machines because each meet detection standards, and by investing in multiple suppliers of the technology, the TSA can leverage competition to provide the best value, Davis said.
The TSA says radiation exposure from the backscatter machines is minimal and levels have been tested by independent agencies. But a group of four doctors and scientists at the University of California at San Francisco has expressed doubts in a letter to the White House. The group is concerned that exposure could increase skin cancer risk.
While the government has responded that exposure is "minuscule" and the risk "not supported," the doctors are formulating a response requesting further testing, said university spokeswoman Jennifer O'Brien.
Parents interviewed at LaGuardia seemed resigned to the scanners. "I don't think it's a big deal," said Marietta Castillo of Floral Park, N.Y., who was heading to Florida for vacation with her daughter Lucia, 3. "The alternative, I think, is worse. The alternative being a disaster."
Some parents said they were leery of TSA "imaging officers" seeing nude outlines of their children produced by the scanners, even though images are projected into a separate room and faces are blotted out. "Our morals teach us different," said Eva Fernandez of Hicksville, N.Y., traveling to Honduras with her daughter, Evita, 5.
The backscatter machines form a chalky image of the naked body; the others create what looks like a photo negative. The images aren't stored.
To avoid the new scanners, parents can navigate toward a security line with a metal detector. But if directed to a scanner, it's decision time. "Completion of the screening process," Davis said, "is required as a condition of flying."
Experts offer the following advice on preparing children for the new airport security measures:
Explain to children before heading to the airport that they will pass through a metal detector or a scanner, or might be patted down by a Transportation Security Administration employee. Let them know that they will see all the passengers doing it, advised Wendy Doret, a psychologist in Dix Hills.
Tell your child that the purpose is to keep everybody safe on the plane. If you're going through the scanners, go first so your child can see that nothing happens to you, suggested Dr. Victor Fornari, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Zucker Hillside Hospital, part of the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System.
If you opt for the pat-down, explain to your child that it's OK for the official employee to touch him or her with parents present, in the same way it's OK for the doctor to do an examination, Fornari said. Don't project your own anxieties that the child might pick up on, he said.
Discuss with your adolescent which is preferable -- the scanner or a pat-down, which adolescents might find particularly awkward, Fornari said.