[ RadSafe ] Airport X-ray scanners inadequate for the job.

Clayton J Bradt CJB01 at health.state.ny.us
Wed Dec 1 15:51:47 CST 2010

If drug mules can hide cocaine inside their bodies during flights, surely 
would-be suicide bombers can do the same thing with explosives. The 
following article from Newsday emphasizes how hopelessly inadequate 
backscatter scanners are at thwarting terrorists.  TSA will have to do 
something to close this loophole.  CT may be the answer:

CT scans best at seeing smugglers?internal drugs

December 1, 2010 
by The Associated Press I LINDSEY TANNER (AP MedcaI Writer)

(AP) ? The best method for finding narcotics that smugglers, or
drug ?mules,? hide within their bodies is the same CT medical
imaging more commonly used to spot cancer, a small study by S4ss
researchers suggests.
CT scans were far more accurate at detecting smuggled drugs than
X-rays. But CT scanning machines and the image processing are
expensive, too costly to regularly use to catch smugglers, some
experts say.
In the study, all 18 CT scans on smugglers correctly detected drugs
they had swallowed or stuffed inside bodily cavities. There was only
one mistake ? one non-smuggler was wrongly identified as hiding drugs.
By comparison, conventional digital X-rays accurately detected smuggled 
drugs in 21
cases, but missed nine. The X-rays also indicated drugs when there were 
none in six
cases. A type of full-body X-ray was better than that, spofting six 
correctly and getting three
cases wrong, but it wasn?t as good as CT scanning.
X-rays are less expensive than CT scans, but also more prone to false 
readings, said Dr.
Patricia Flach, the study?s lead researcher. She is a forensic radiologist 
at University
Hospital in Bern, Switzerland, which is especially equipped to handle drug 
?On plain X-rays, overlapping structures, intestinal gas and feces very 
often disguise
intestinal packs causing false-positive and false negative read-outs,? 
Flach said.
Her research was being presented Wednesday at the Radiological Society of 
North America?s
annual meeting in Chicago.
The study involved 50 suspected drug mules or ?body packers,? brought by 
customs officials
to the Swiss hospital over a three-year period, or who showed up on their 
own because of
overdose symptoms. Some were scanned with CT machines, some with X-rays 
and some
with both.
The suspects were ages 16 to 45, most of them men; 43 of them were 
ultimately identified
as drug mules, most smuggling cocaine from Africa on airplanes.
The research offers an intriguing glimpse into the world of drug 
smuggling. Flach said mules
often swallow 50 to 100 packets of drugs, sometimes stored in condoms 
coated with wax to
1 of 2 12/1/2010 11:22AM
Newsday.com http://www 
make them easier to gulp down. They sometimes practice by swallowing whole 
grapes and
The packets may show up as distinct round or oblong-shaped white or dark 
spots on
imaging tests.
Flach said the smugglers sometimes raise suspicion because they often 
don?t drink or eat
anything during long flights, to avoid losing their contraband in airplane 
toilets. Customs
agents are then tipped off once the plane lands. Or sometimes the packets 
rupture during the
flight, causing an overdose and the smugglers have to be rushed to the 
In the United States, some major international airports have onsite 
medical centers with
X-ray machines and special toilets, said John Saleh, a U.S. Customs and 
Border Protection
officer in New York. Sometimes customs contracts with hospitals to run 
imaging tests on
suspects, who must sign consent forms. If they refuse, they?re held in 
custody long enough
for any drugs to pass, Saleh said.
Dr. Nageswara Mandava dealt with drug mules for several years at a 
now-shuttered New
York hospital that worked with customs agents at Kennedy International 
His own research shows CT scan images are superior but too expensive and
time-consuming to use routinely. X-rays generally are good enough at 
detecting drugs,
costing about $50 each and producing an image in minutes, versus a few 
hundred dollars for
a CT scan, which can take hours. Mandava said CT scans are probably most 
useful to
confirm an inconclusive X-ray.
Dr. Luis Rivas, chief of trauma and emergency radiology at University of 
Miami Miller School of
Medicine, agreed that CT scans produce superior images. But he said cost ? 
more than $1
million per machine ? makes them impractical at airports. Plus, they emit 
much more
radiation so pose more heafth risks.
Rivas said his centerused to help identify drug mules but stopped when 
customs priorities
shifted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Before then, vans 
with X-ray machines on
board were stationed at various airports, including Newark, Houston, and 
Miami ? the busiest.
X-ray scans of suspects were transmitted to a computer at his hospital, 
where doctors
evaluated them, Rivas said.
?This method was very cost-effective for the customs department because 
the agents never
had to leave the airport and the resufts were available to them within 
minutes,? he said.

Clayton J. Bradt
dutchbradt at hughes.net
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