Combatting drug trafficking at ports, screening passengers at airports, determining the age of immigrants who have lost their passports: these are among the areas where radiation is used for human imaging for non-medical purposes. As more people become exposed to radiation in this way, Member States have requested the IAEA to create international guidelines to limit their exposure.
Experts from 29 countries and two international organisations gathered at the IAEA last week to work on the preparation of the guidelines, which are expected to be published as an IAEA Safety Guide next year.
Human imaging using ionizing radiation has been widely used in medicine for decades. In recent years, with an increase in demand for security, a greater number of countries have started to introduce human imaging for non-medical purposes. What makes this type of imaging somewhat controversial is that it is carried out without any clinical symptoms of disease and often without any medical benefit to the individual. Furthermore, it may be carried out on minors without parental consent and, as in the case of some security screening, even without the individuals being aware of the exposure. This is why countries are seeking clear advice on the radiation protection and ethical aspects of these practices, explained Trevor Boal, a Regulatory Standards Specialist at the IAEA.
At the four-day meeting, participants discussed risks, dose limits, justification of non-medical human imaging practices, procedures and optimization for protection and the safety of people who are undergoing such procedures. In addition, they exchanged opinions and views on strengthening collaboration among governments, regulatory bodies and operators.
Questions on justification were also discussed at length: while sometimes there can be benefits to the individual from the exposure, in other instances the benefit is to society only. Participants also considered the issue of using radiation when other technologies not involving radiation are available.
Views of country representatives
In Jordan, non-medical human imaging is used to detect concealed objects and to fight the smuggling of drugs and weapons, said Ahmad Issa Ahmad Hamdan, Director of the Radiation Protection Directorate at the Energy and Minerals Regulatory Commission of Jordan. “Practices used in different countries related to non-medical human imaging are justified due to various specific reasons,” he said. “Increase in the use of these practices means we need to take into consideration the increase of aggregate exposure.”
Simon Coenen, Senior Expert of Nuclear Safety at the Federal Agency for Nuclear Control of Belgium said that cargo screening is the main use of non-medical human imaging in Belgium. At the Antwerp Port, for instance, the Customs Department has a set of devices to screen as much cargo as it can. But if illegal immigrants are hidden among the cargo, they can be exposed to radiation. This raises both ethical and practical questions, he said.
IAEA’s initiative in radiation safety
The IAEA’s Basic Safety Standards are used as benchmarks in the development of national regulations. The 2014 entitled “Radiation Protection and Safety of Radiation Sources: International Basic Safety Standards (IAEA Safety Standards Series No. GSR Part 3),” included significant changes on non-medical human imaging. In order to further support Member States in implementation of non-medical human imaging, the IAEA has developed a Safety Guide “Radiation Safety of X-ray Generators and Radiation Sources Used for Inspection Purposes and for Non-Medical Imaging (DS471),” which will now be updated, Boal said.