Are Airport Security Full Body Scanners Safe with Pacemakers and ICDs?

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Question: Are Airport Security Full Body Scanners Safe with Pacemakers and ICDs?

My husband and I are flying to Atlanta next month to visit our grandchildren. I have a pacemaker and my husband has an ICD. What should we do if they want us to go through one of those new naked picture scanners they're using at airports now? Is it safe to go through one with a pacemaker or ICD?

Answer:

The new airport security scanners (which the TSA prefers to call "full body scanners") should not affect your pacemaker or your husband's implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD).

Walk-Through Metal Detectors

As I'm sure you know, there are two general types of security devices used by the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) at airports. The one that has been in use for many years is the walk-through metal detector. This device will not affect your pacemaker as long as you walk straight through it and don't stop inside to read the graffiti. Pacemakers and ICDs may in fact set off the metal detector alarm (though usually they do not), but that doesn't cause any problem with the implantable devices.

However, the hand-held scanner the TSA agent may use on you (after you set off the metal detector) contains a magnet, which may momentarily interfere with your pacemaker (or your husband's ICD) when it is brought near. You should tell the TSA agent that you have a pacemaker or ICD, and that they should keep the hand-held scanner away from you and your husband.

Producing your pacemaker/ICD identification card for the agent might be helpful in this instance, but usually is not absolutely necessary.

There is a lot of information regarding the safety of these walk-through metal detectors in people with pacemakers and ICDs, and the websites of both the pacemaker manufacturers and the TSA go into great detail about this issue.

Full Body Scanners

Full body scanners (which you and many others have referred to as “naked picture scanners”) are a relatively new screening tool in airports. Introduced in the mid-2000s, these scanners use a type of radiation called backscatter and millimeter wave radiation to generate an image of your body. 

These kinds of radiation waves travel through clothing, but do not penetrate the body. Instead, the waves “bounce back,” and are assembled to create an image of the body and any items within your clothing. 

When the full body scanners were first introduced, there was relatively little objective information available about their relative safety with pacemakers and ICDs. Because the radiation from these devices does not penetrate the skin, both the government and pacemaker/ICD companies felt sure that they were safe for people who had these devices, and this is what they have always told anyone who asked. 

For a few years, however, there was a bit of confusion on this issue. The TSA initially did not release detailed specifications of their body scanners (claiming it was national security matter). And without those specifications the device companies simply could do the formal, rigorous testing that would be required to prove that pacemakers and ICDs are not affected by the full body scanner.

 

However, over the years these devices have now been used in millions of people with medical devices, and no problems have ever been reported with them. It seems quite clear at this point that full body scanners are indeed safe for people with pacemakers and ICDs.

What about the risk posed to the general public (and not just to people with medical devices) from these radiation-based screening systems? Studies have shown that going through a full body scanner exposes a person to an amount of radiation roughly equal to three to nine minutes of the radiation we all receive from the environment during every day of normal living.

So, the amount of radiation a person gets from a full body scanner at the airport is trivial.

A Word From Verywell

People with pacemakers and ICDs have little or nothing to worry about with current airport screening procedures. If you are directed to go through a metal detector, let the TSA agent know that you have an implanted medical device that might set off the alarm. If you are directed to the full body scanner, there are no special precautions you need to take. 

Sources:

Mehta P, Smith-Bindman R. Airport full-body screening: what is the risk? Arch Intern Med 2011; 171:1112.

Tracy CM, Epstein AE, Darbar D, et al. 2012 ACCF/AHA/HRS focused update of the 2008 guidelines for device-based therapy of cardiac rhythm abnormalities: a report of the American College of Cardiology Foundation/American Heart Association Task Force on Practice Guidelines and the Heart Rhythm Society. [corrected]. Circulation 2012; 126:1784.

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