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Airport security screening has become increasingly sophisticated over the years. Full body scanners are now commonly used at airports to screen passengers for potential threats.

This has led many travelers to wonder – can these high-tech scanners also detect health problems?

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll examine how full-body scanners work, what they can and cannot detect their limitations, and the health privacy issues involved.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: Airport full-body scanners use either millimeter wave or backscatter X-ray technology to create detailed images that can reveal concealed weapons and contraband.

While they are not designed to diagnose medical conditions, the high-resolution images they produce can sometimes inadvertently reveal indicators of certain health issues.

How Do Full Body Scanners Work?

Full body scanners are advanced security devices used in airports to detect any concealed threat or prohibited items that a passenger may be carrying.

These scanners operate by using either millimeter wave technology or backscatter X-ray technology.

Millimeter Wave Scanners

Millimeter wave scanners are the most common type of full body scanners used in airports. They work by emitting low-level radio frequency waves over the body of the person being scanned.

The waves reflect off the body and create a detailed image that is analyzed by the scanner’s software.This image can reveal any hidden objects or anomalies on the person’s body.

The advantage of millimeter wave scanners is that they do not use ionizing radiation, making them safe for passengers.

The images produced by these scanners are also less invasive compared to other scanning methods.

The scanner displays a generic outline of the person’s body with any detected anomalies highlighted for further inspection by security personnel.

Backscatter X-Ray Scanners

Backscatter X-ray scanners work by projecting a narrow beam of X-rays onto the body of the person being scanned.

These X-rays penetrate the clothing and reflect back to the scanner, creating a detailed image of the person’s body.

The image produced by the scanner can reveal hidden objects, such as weapons or explosives, that may be concealed under clothing.

It is important to note that backscatter X-ray scanners use a very low dose of radiation, which is considered safe for passengers.

However, some concerns have been raised regarding the potential health risks associated with repeated exposure to radiation.

As a result, many airports have phased out the use of backscatter X-ray scanners in favor of millimeter wave scanners.

Both millimeter wave scanners and backscatter X-ray scanners have their advantages and disadvantages.

While millimeter wave scanners are considered safer and less invasive, backscatter X-ray scanners can provide more detailed images.

Ultimately, the choice of scanner technology depends on the specific security protocols and regulations implemented by each airport.

What Can Body Scanners Detect?

Body scanners at airports are primarily designed to detect any potential threats or illegal items that passengers may be carrying.

However, these scanners can also pick up on certain health issues or medical devices that passengers may have.

Let’s take a closer look at what body scanners can detect beyond just metallic and non-metallic objects.

Metallic and Non-Metallic Objects

Body scanners are equipped with advanced imaging technology that can easily detect both metallic and non-metallic objects on a person’s body.

This includes items such as keys, coins, belts, jewelry, and even weapons.

The scanners use a combination of millimeter-wave technology and X-ray imaging to create a detailed image of a person’s body, allowing security personnel to identify any potential threats.

Abnormal Masses or Shapes

While body scanners are primarily used to detect external objects, they can also pick up on abnormal masses or shapes within the body.

These abnormal masses could potentially indicate the presence of a health issue, such as a tumor or an abnormal growth.

However, it’s important to note that body scanners are not designed to diagnose specific medical conditions or provide a detailed medical assessment.

If any abnormalities are detected, passengers may be subject to additional screening or asked to provide medical documentation.

Ostomy Bags and Medical Devices

Body scanners are also capable of detecting medical devices, including ostomy bags. Ostomy bags are used by individuals who have undergone certain types of surgeries, such as a colostomy or ileostomy.

These bags collect waste from the body and are typically attached to the abdomen.

Body scanners are sensitive enough to pick up on the presence of an ostomy bag, ensuring that individuals with medical devices are treated with respect and privacy during the security screening process.

It’s important to understand that the primary purpose of body scanners at airports is to ensure the safety and security of all passengers.

While they can detect certain health issues or medical devices, the scanners are not intended to replace proper medical examinations or screenings.

If you have any concerns about your health or medical devices, it’s always best to consult with your healthcare provider before traveling.

Limitations of Detection

While airport body scanners have proven to be effective in enhancing security measures, it’s important to understand their limitations when it comes to detecting health issues.

These devices are primarily designed for security screening rather than health screening, and their capabilities in identifying medical conditions are somewhat limited.

Designed for Security, Not Health Screening

Airport body scanners are primarily designed to detect potential threats such as weapons or explosives hidden on a person’s body or clothing.

They use advanced imaging technology, such as millimeter-wave scanners or backscatter X-ray scanners, to create a detailed image of the individual’s body.

However, these scanners are not specifically calibrated to identify health issues or abnormalities.

According to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the primary purpose of body scanners is to detect threats to aviation security and not to diagnose medical conditions.

Therefore, while they may occasionally uncover certain health-related anomalies, they are not a substitute for medical screenings or diagnostic tests conducted by healthcare professionals.

Interpretation Requires Human Judgment

Another limitation of airport body scanners is that the interpretation of the images they produce requires human judgment.

The scanning process generates images that are examined by trained security personnel who look for any potential threats or anomalies.

However, these personnel may not have the expertise or training to identify specific health issues or medical conditions.

It’s important to note that TSA officers are not medical professionals and their primary focus is on security screening rather than healthcare.

While they are trained to recognize potential abnormalities, their ability to detect specific health issues may be limited.

Therefore, any irregularities identified during the scanning process would likely require further evaluation by medical professionals to determine their significance.

Privacy Filters Can Obscure Issues

To address privacy concerns, airport body scanners are equipped with privacy filters that blur or obscure the images to protect the individual’s privacy.

While these filters are necessary to respect passengers’ rights and maintain their dignity, they can also inadvertently obscure potential health issues or abnormalities.

Privacy filters may make it difficult to identify subtle medical conditions that may not be immediately apparent to the naked eye.

As a result, even if a person has an underlying health issue, the body scanner may not be able to detect it due to the privacy filters in place.

Health Conditions Scanners May Reveal

Cancers and Tumors

Airport body scanners, also known as millimeter-wave scanners, have the potential to detect certain health conditions. One of the health conditions that these scanners may be able to reveal is cancers and tumors.

These scanners use advanced imaging technology to create detailed images of the body, allowing security personnel to identify any abnormal growths or masses.

While airport body scanners are primarily designed for security purposes, they have the capability to detect potential health issues that may otherwise go unnoticed.


In addition to detecting cancers and tumors, airport body scanners can also reveal the presence of hernias. Hernias occur when an organ or fatty tissue pushes through a weak spot or tear in the surrounding muscle or connective tissue.

These abnormalities can be difficult to detect through physical examination alone, but body scanners can provide a clearer view of the affected area.

By detecting hernias, airport body scanners can help individuals receive timely medical attention and necessary treatment.

Cardiac Devices

Individuals with cardiac devices, such as pacemakers or implantable cardioverter-defibrillators (ICDs), may wonder if they will be affected by airport body scanners.

The good news is that these scanners are generally safe for individuals with cardiac devices.

According to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the millimeter-wave scanners used in airports do not pose a risk to the functionality of cardiac devices.

However, it is recommended that individuals with such devices inform the security personnel before going through the scanner, as alternative screening methods may be necessary.

Prosthetics and Implants

Airport body scanners can also reveal the presence of prosthetics and implants.

These scanners can help security personnel identify any artificial limbs, joint replacements, or other medical devices that individuals may have.

It is important to note that having a prosthetic limb or implant should not prevent someone from going through airport security.

The TSA has specific guidelines in place to ensure that individuals with prosthetics and implants are treated with respect and provided with necessary accommodations during the screening process.

Privacy and Health Data Concerns

Lack of Informed Consent

One of the main concerns regarding airport body scanners is the lack of informed consent.

Passengers are often unaware of the potential health risks associated with these scanners and may not have the opportunity to opt-out or choose an alternative screening method.

This raises questions about the ethical implications of using these scanners without obtaining proper consent from individuals.

No Clinical Oversight or Standards

Another concern is the absence of clinical oversight and standards when it comes to airport body scanners.

Unlike medical imaging devices used in hospitals, these scanners are not regulated by healthcare professionals.

There is a lack of guidelines and protocols in place to ensure that the scanners are safe and effective in detecting health issues.

This raises doubts about the reliability and accuracy of the results obtained from these scanners.

Potential for Discrimination

The use of airport body scanners also presents the potential for discrimination. Certain health conditions or disabilities may be detected by these scanners, leading to unfair treatment or stigmatization of individuals.

For example, individuals with medical implants or prosthetics may be subject to additional scrutiny or even denied boarding based on the information obtained from the scanners.

This raises concerns about the violation of privacy and the potential for discrimination based on health data.

It is important to note that these concerns are based on the current state of airport body scanners and may vary depending on the specific technology and regulations in place.


While airport body scanners are designed to screen for security threats, their increasingly detailed scans can sometimes reveal signs of underlying health issues as well.

However, they are not a substitute for proper diagnostic imaging or clinical evaluation.

There are also valid privacy concerns around the use of body scanners for inadvertent health screening without consent, oversight, or accountability.

Overall, body scanners may provide incidental findings, but should not be considered a definitive means of assessing health conditions.

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