U.S. Customs calls gamma ray scanners ‘harmless’

TORONTO (Feb. 13, 2003) — Like many drivers, John Sterne is perturbed with the heightened security at various U.S.-Canada border crossings since Sept. 11. However, it’s not the long line-ups or the increased focus on identification requirements that has put him off.

A Langley, B.C.-based owner-operator with three trucks, Sterne is concerned about new scanners used by U.S. Customs at various ports and border crossings to screen trucks, trailers, and containers for contraband, illegal immigrants, and most recently, bomb-making devices that may be used by terrorists.

He raised questions after pulling up to the Pacific Highway border crossing at Blaine, Wash. There he claims the inspector prematurely turned on the machine, which emits low levels of ionizing radiation, while the isotope lens was directed at his head through the driver-side window. Sterne said he experienced headaches after the incident.

“Based on what I know of gamma rays, I’d rather not take the chance anymore,” he said.

However, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, its U.S. counterpart, and U.S. Customs say the level of radiation the scanner emits is harmless.

Most low levels of radiation are measured in millirem. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, humans can be directly exposed to 100 millirem of radiation a year beyond background radiation. The scanner used by U.S. Customs emits radiation levels that are measured in micro-rem, which is one-one thousandth of a millirem. In other words, that’s a heck of a lot cross-border hauls and foul-ups by the inspector operating the machine to be a health risk.

Even so, U.S. Customs goes to great lengths not to expose drivers to the scanner.

“Realistically, we’re not going to scan the same driver thousands of times a year … In spite of that, we still don’t intentionally scan people as a matter of policy,” said U.S. Customs radiation safety officer Richard Whitman. “I am unaware that (a driver has been directly scanned), and if I received a formal complaint, I would take any claim very seriously.

“If this did indeed happen (to Sterne), it is an isolated incident.”

Look for the full story in the March issue of Today’s Trucking.

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