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Originally published Friday, October 15, 2010 at 2:07 PM

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Full-body scanners arrive at Sea-Tac Airport

Full-body scanners will soon be fully operational at Sea-Tac Airport despite worries about privacy, health effects and longer lines.

Seattle Times travel writer

Report complaints

The Washington D.C. based Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has set up an online form for travelers to report problems with the use of full-body scanners at airport-security checkpoints. To file a report, go online: epic.org/bodyscanner/incident_report/

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Traveling through Seattle-Tacoma Airport soon? Be prepared to remove your wallet, take off your watch and belt, empty your pockets and stand with your hands over your head while an X-ray machine scans for anything hidden under your clothing.

Fourteen full-body scanners will be installed at Sea-Tac security checkpoints with some fully operational within the next week, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officials said Friday.

The machines, called "backscatter" devices, allow agents to see through clothes by scattering low-dose X-rays at a passenger's front and back. The X-rays produce a chalky, nude image that detects hidden metallic and nonmetallic items alike, such as plastic weapons and explosives.

To quell privacy concerns, TSA is making the screening optional — travelers can opt for a physical pat down and a walk through a metal detector instead. Agents also might use explosive-tracing devices (cotton swabs) or hand wands to check for suspect items.

For those who go through the scanners, TSA says the machines are set up to erase the images immediately, and the pictures will be viewed by a screener stationed in a spot where he or she can't see the passenger in person.

But critics charge that congressional leaders, desperate to do something after the failed Christmas Day attack by the so-called "underwear bomber," who hid powdered explosives in his pants, rushed to OK the new system without scrutinizing the pitfalls.

Critics point out that scanners won't detect objects hidden in body cavities, and they cite not only privacy concerns, but worries about health risks due to low-level radiation exposure, a point that is in much debate.

"Of all the inconveniences we've had to go through, I think many people feel like this one crosses the line," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C.

His organization has filed a lawsuit aimed at suspending the program.

"Even though some steps have been taken to obscure images when the operators views them, that doesn't solve the underlying problem that these are basically digital cameras that take pictures of people undressed," he said.

Longer wait times?

Another concern is that wait times in security lines will get longer. TSA says it doesn't expect that to happen once people get used to the process, but some travelers report slowdowns at airports where the scanners are in use.

"My suspender clips got me a quick wanding," said Leroy McVay, of Poulsbo, who went through a body scanner in Tulsa, Okla. "The same person who was watching the X-ray unit had to stop everything to wand my suspenders, and that slowed up the whole line."

The biggest change will be that "everything has to come out of your pockets," said Dwayne Baird, TSA's media officer. "That means plastic combs, wallets, watches and extensive jewelry."

TSA estimates the whole process should take an average of about 20 seconds, including the time it takes for carry-on belongings to pass through on the conveyor belt. The image-scanning itself takes five to seven seconds.

TSA insists that the backscatter machines are safe, saying the radiation exposure is no more than a passenger would experience flying for two minutes at 30,000 feet. But with some frequent fliers raising concerns, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, has called for an independent review of the health effects for travelers, TSA employees and airline personnel.

TSA cites positive evaluations by the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institute for Standards and Technology and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. The New York Times, however, reports that those tests looked only at whether the amount of radiation levels met guidelines set up by the American National Standards Institute, a group whose members include representatives from the companies that make the machines and the Department of Homeland Security.

TSA plans to have 450 full-body scanners installed at more than 50 U.S. airports this year at a cost of $130,000 to $170,000 each, paid for with federal stimulus funds.

Twenty-seven airports are getting the less-controversial "millimeter wave" scanners, which still produce a body image but don't use X-rays. Thirty-three airports, including Sea-Tac, are getting the backscatters.

At Sea-Tac, agents are currently testing scanners at a checkpoint in the south terminal, used mainly by international passengers. Five of the 14 machines will be installed there. The North security checkpoint, closest to the Alaska Airlines/Horizon Air and United Airlines ticket counters, will close Sunday for about two weeks while TSA installs scanners there.

All four checkpoints at Sea-Tac will have the new machines, but with 35 security lanes and only 14 full-body scanners, TSA agents will continue to direct many passengers through the old metal detectors.

Carol Pucci: 206-464-3701 or cpucci@seattletimes.com

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