FAA may start using scanner that looks inside the body

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FAA May Start Using Scanner That Looks Inside the Body

By Don Phillips, Washington Post Staff Writer

Friday, October 26, 2001; Page E02

A low-dose X-ray body scanner, first used at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport to look for illegal drugs hidden inside the body, may someday be put to work at U.S. airports looking for weapons and explosives.

The Conpass Body Scanner, manufactured by a Dutch company and distributed by a small company in Florida, is one of several devices being considered by the Federal Aviation Administration to enhance airport security. The distributor, X-Ray Equipment Co. of Miami, met this week with officials of the FAA and the Office of Homeland Security. It normally takes years for new equipment to get to U.S. airports, although the timetable could be sped up considerably in this case.

Other body scanners, including a new one called Rapiscan, are being tested at the FAA Technical Center in Atlantic City. And five airports already use a scanner made by American Science & Engineering Inc. of Billerica, Mass., to search for drugs and other contraband hidden under clothing. That device, called Body Search, has drawn protests because it basically undresses passengers.

But Conpass is being promoted as the first scanner that can look through to the human skeleton to spot metal, plastic and any other non-flesh objects. In use, a passenger stands on a platform that moves past the scanner, producing a full body picture within 10 seconds, according to X-Ray Equipment. But the picture looks more like a skeleton with a fuzzy body around it and does not show body parts vividly. Foreign objects stand out wherever they are, from belt buckles to plastic explosives to drug-filled condoms that have been swallowed.

An FAA official said privately that the device has interesting possibilities if it works as advertised. But even if it does work, it would have to overcome privacy and health concerns, he said. For instance, is it safe for pregnant women? And even if it is proven safe, could screeners force a pregnant woman to be scanned by the device?

Keith W. Carter, sales manager of X-Ray Equipment Co., said the machine produces a "harmless amount of radiation," less than a passenger would get during one hour of high-altitude flight.The device can produce a picture almost as good as a hospital X-ray machine by aiming a low-dose X-ray at a proprietary digital receptor that is more sensitive than X-ray film, Carter said.

Carter said the Amsterdam airport averages eight drug arrests a month using the system. Forty-six other systems are in use in other countries, with France using them at all its major airports. Twenty-seven are in locations that the host countries want to keep secret, including some in the Middle East, Carter said. So far, he said, machines have been used for secondary scans after suspicions are raised by other checks, rather than using them as replacements for older magnetometers as primary scanners.

In the weeks since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Carter's 50-employee medical equipment company, which has exclusive distribution rights to the machine, has received orders for 100 new systems, including 20 for India, 10 for Britain, 10 for Malaysia and 60 for other undisclosed locations. The scanner's $400,000 price was lowered to $300,000 after Sept. 11, partly on the assumption that sales volume would increase.

2001 The Washington Post Company

-- Swissrose (cellier3@mindspring.com), October 29, 2001

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