Beware of Checked Baggage X-ray
Before and after images
show the major impact that a single Xray scan had on this
In the time since this article
was written, the number of people traveling with film rather
than digital cameras has massively reduced, but the issue and
importance of protecting film remains as relevant as ever for
those people who still do travel with 'old fashioned' film.
So here is what you need to
know and do if you are one such person.
With the mandated X-ray
screening of checked baggage now a fact of life, in all airports
across the country, you need to switch packing strategies if
traveling with undeveloped film.
In the past, domestic
checked luggage was seldom if ever X-rayed, and so, if traveling
with film, it was usually a better idea to pack it in your
checked luggage so as to keep it from being X-rayed in cabin
baggage. Sure, the signs all say 'This machine will not harm
film' but the truth is that, while a single low power scan would
not harm 'slow' or 'moderate' speed film (ie 400 ASA or less),
the effects of X-ray exposure are cumulative and in the course
of a journey you may end up giving your film half a dozen or
more exposures, which might start to affect faster speed film.
And, if you're like me, you
find it very hard to trust the X-ray machines in third world
countries that have a hand printed sign on them suggesting that
they are 'film safe'!
But now the situation is
being turned on its head. The new X-ray machines that are now
used to inspect ALL checked baggage are immensely more powerful
than the machines we've got used to putting our carry on items
through. A blast of X-rays from one of these machines -
particularly if the operator sees something unusual and turns
the power up to 'high' to get a better look, or focuses the beam
tightly on one spot - can variously put radiation streaks across
part or all of the undeveloped film you have in your suitcase.
Note that this will occur
whether you have taken pictures on the film or not. It doesn't
matter if the film is hit by X-rays before or after you take a
picture with it - the net result is the same.
Strategies to Protect your Film
Some people suggest using a
lead lined bag to put your film in to protect it from X-rays.
Others disagree. What do you think the X-ray machine operator
will do if he sees a large big black shape in your bag? The
first thing will be to turn the beam up to 'max' and focus it
tightly on the mysterious shape, to try and see through the lead
lining. If the X-rays are powerful enough, they'll for sure
penetrate and then you've given your film a dose of highest
power X-rays. Alternatively, if the X-rays don't penetrate, then
your bag will be set aside for a personal search. Do you really
want someone going through your suitcase while you're not
present? Who knows what might happen to your careful packing!
For more details on this
danger, there is an interesting page of information and
illustrations of the effects of X-ray damage on the
the chapter and verse of TSA regulations that clearly
indicate that (within the US) security screeners are required to
hand check film (of any speed) if you request it.
Danger through the Mail, too -
for many things
may have read about some of the mail that was being irradiated
by the USPS (to protect against possible anthrax) bursting into
flames from the strength of the radiation! What do you think
this sort of radiation does to film?
But, that's not all. The
same radiation (similar to an EMP - electro magnetic pulse -
effect from a nuclear bomb blast) may also damage or destroy
computer memory, processor chips and even CDs and DVDs! Just
like how a piece of metal sparks in your home microwave, similar
effects could damage most solid state electronics going through
some of these new (and, I believe, still experimental) mail
This high energy radiation
does not protect against poisons such as ricin, however.
As a side bar comment to
this, I was about to mail a formal submission to the DOT on some
rule making it is seeking advice on today, only to discover that
they are not accepting ANY regular mail at all at present due to
anthrax and security concerns! Wow - what a way to run a
government - 'we won't accept any mail any more'!
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4 Jan 2002, last update
21 Jul 2020
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.