Medical Radiation Scans Flag Airport Security

Information Card May Help Traveling Patients Answer Security Questions

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on July 21, 2005
From the WebMD Archives

July 21, 2005 -- Body images that use radiation are a big help in checking for certain illnesses, but they're not such a plus at airports.

Radioactive atoms, or radioisotopes, are used to produce body images (nuclear scans) or to treat diseases. They can temporarily make people radioactive. That can set off radiation alarms at airports, researchers report in The Lancet.

More than 18 million people get such scans each year, write M. Bilal Iqbal, MBBS, and colleagues. Nuclear scans can allow doctors to look at the inside of the body with the use of radioactive substances. The radioactive material used to create images are ingested or injected into the body and do not harm the body.

Information Cards and False Alarms

"Patient information cards could lessen the impact of such false alarms and avoid unnecessary interrogation by airport security personnel," writes Iqbal, who works in the cardiology department of London's Royal Brompton Hospital.

Some of the more common scans include scans of the heart, thyroid, brain, and bone. Different types of radioactive material are used in small doses for imaging tests.

Thallium scans (frequently used for imaging the heart) may trigger radiation detectors for up to 30 days, write the researchers.

"It should be standard practice to issue patients with an information card after diagnostic or therapeutic procedures involving radioisotopes," they write.

"The card should state the date and place of the procedure, the radioisotope used and it's half-life, potential duration of radioactive emissions from the patient, and details on who to contact for verification if necessary."

Cautionary Tale

Imagine yourself in the shoes of a 55-year-old commercial pilot in March 2004. Iqbal's report tells his story.

After a routine medical checkup, the pilot was referred for further heart screening. A round of tests included a thallium scan. That left the pilot with lingering traces of radiation.

Two days later, he was scheduled as a crew member on a flight to Moscow. He set off radiation alarms at the airport. The pilot mentioned his scan during extensive questioning and was released later that day.

The same thing happened again -- at the same unnamed airport -- four days later. Wanting to avoid such hassles in the future, airport security officials gave the pilot an information card about his recent scan.

Unexpected Attention

Another patient reportedly set off radiation detectors at a bank vault three days after a thallium stress test.

Two others were seized by the U.S. Secret Service after setting off White House radiation detectors a few days after thallium stress tests.

Those stories are noted in Iqbal's report.

Other medical procedures involving radiation may also trigger security alarms.