[ 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
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
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
Hospital in Bern, Switzerland, which is especially equipped to handle drug
?On plain X-rays, overlapping structures, intestinal gas and feces very
intestinal packs causing false-positive and false negative read-outs,?
Her research was being presented Wednesday at the Radiological Society of
annual meeting in Chicago.
The study involved 50 suspected drug mules or ?body packers,? brought by
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
The suspects were ages 16 to 45, most of them men; 43 of them were
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
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make them easier to gulp down. They sometimes practice by swallowing whole
The packets may show up as distinct round or oblong-shaped white or dark
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
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
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
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
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
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
radiation so pose more heafth risks.
Rivas said his centerused to help identify drug mules but stopped when
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,
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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