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

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Updated October 31, 2012

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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). However, when I attempted to research this question in order to give you an authoritative answer, I ran into a brick wall.

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 (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 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.

Information abounds 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.

Unfortunately, this is decidedly not the case with full body scanners. The websites of the pacemaker manufacturers and the TSA don't merely suffer from a lack of detailed information, they are completely silent on the issue of full body scanners with pacemakers and ICDs. And a search on PubMed, an on-line reference that allows you to search the peer-reviewed medical literature, also turned up nothing. If there is any objective evidence on the safety of full body scanners in people who have pacemakers and ICDs, apparently nobody has seen fit to publish it.

To try to figure out what the heck is really going on, I called the technical support departments of two major pacemaker manufacturers. I was told that they regard the full body scanner as completely safe for pacemakers and ICDs, and this is what they tell patients and doctors when they call for advice (which apparently they do frequently, since there is no written advice anywhere).

I asked why they don't have this information on their websites. They said it's because the TSA will not release the detailed specifications of their body scanners (claiming it is a national security matter). Without those specifications the companies simply cannot do the formal, rigorous testing that would be required to prove that pacemakers and ICDs are not affected by the full body scanner. And because they cannot do this testing, they cannot put into writing their advice that full body scanners are safe with medical devices. To do so would constitute a legal "claim" under the government's regulations. Without having done the formal testing, making a legal claim could get them into big trouble. So their websites and other written materials are totally silent on the issue, as if the issue did not exist at all.

(Whether it should be okay for a government agency to subject millions of Americans to a scanning device that may have medical implications, without releasing the full specifications of that device so that potential medical consequences can be fully and independently investigated, is a political question that is beyond the scope of this article.)

I then asked these technical support people why they are so confident that body scanners are safe with pacemakers and ICDs if they haven't been able to do formal testing. I was told that a) the engineers have determined it is extraordinarily unlikely that these scanners are capable of negatively affecting implantable medical devices, and b) many thousands of people with pacemakers and ICDs have used total body scanners over the past several years, and there has been no allegation of any problems. So, both engineering theory and a large volume of real-world experience indicates they are safe, according to them.

The bottom line: There is no reason to believe that the full body scanner will harm your pacemaker or your husband's ICD, and medical device companies are willing to say that verbally (but not in writing).

If you want to wait until some authority is willing to make a definitive written statement about this, you can opt for a pat-down instead when you go through airport security. Since this issue is in the hands of bureaucrats, however, don't hold your breath waiting for a resolution.

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