Backscatter Scanners and Pacemakers

As you may remember, I almost flew to Atlanta for the recent Heart Walk, but changed my mind when my parents decided to attend, too. While getting my gear organized for the trip I thought about the new “Backscatter” full body X-ray scanners being installed in airports: how do those things interact with pacemakers? The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) recommends that those of us with Pacer Power avoid the metal detectors, and since I got my pacer I’m not cool around large magnets. After all, the doctors use a magnet to set my pacemaker; it stands to reason that another magnet could scramble it! So I pull out my plastic card and tell the TSA agents that I have a pacemaker and request a hand patdown, and just avoid all that.

But what about the new scanners? Friend or foe? Not knowing, I called my pacer lab. The short answer: We don’t know.

The longer answer: There hasn’t been any testing done on pacemakers yet. It’s not really safe to get a human volunteer to test the scanner (“We don’t think anything well happen, Fred, but just in case… sign this release form.”) so the next best plan is a series of tests, usually involving calibrating a pacemaker, taping it to a mannequin, and sending him through a scanner – simulating what would happen to a traveler who happens to have a pacemaker.

If the pacer checks out, you run the test again, and again, and again, to see if going through the scanner multiple times will affect the pacer. Then you run the test yet again – with longer scans and higher radiation levels, to see if that affects the pacemaker. And you keep repeating these tests to eliminate the possibility of a fluke reading.

Wow, that’s pretty involved. It would probably be better if we could borrow a scanner for a few weeks, but I doubt that is going to happen. TSA like to keep things close to the vest, and I bet that goes double for their newest secuity tool. So I figure that the best thing to do if you have a pacemaker is not to risk it – just keep asking for a hand search.

Thankfully, my home airport is so small that they only have three gates. It will be quite a while before they get a Backscatter scanner!

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3 Responses to “Backscatter Scanners and Pacemakers”

  1. cindy sattal Says:

    Hi Steve,

    I just flew to and from Atlanta last week for Maddie’s Glenn surgery and the airport had no scanners and no pat downs…..I’m sure it won’t be long thought. I hope you had a good trip!!

    • Steve Says:

      No backscatter scanners… in Atlanta??? Wow, I figured they would be one of the first. From what I have read, they are only in 68 airports right now.

  2. jtoddles Says:

    it wouldn’t be strapped to a manequin, you’ve have to bury it in at least an inch thick layer of something similar to skin and body tissue

    now i have run into something interesting… the Chunnel scanners (on the way to London from Paris) have been said (by security) to be pacemaker safe… I have a defibrillator so I was still not willing to test it and my doctor had never heard of such a thing so who knows anymore.

    I just request a pat down… Just keeps me anxiety free and tends to go faster

    –> I’m 22, a pacemaker defib patient and working on finishing a project on what it’s like living with such a device (just givin a lil background)

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