Fact Check

Did a Study Prove That Airport Scanners 'Rip Apart' Your DNA?

To paraphrase the actual scientists involved with the research: "No."

Published Feb 24, 2017

 (Wikimedia Commons)
Image Via Wikimedia Commons
A study performed at the Los Alamos National Laboratory found that millimeter wave body scanners commonly used by airport security can alter your DNA.

On 19 February 2017, conspiracy and metaphysics web site "Collective Evolution" published an article (titled "Los Alamos Study Finds Airport Scanners Can Rip Apart & Alter DNA") that was written by Kathy J. Froti, a clinical psychologist with no professional background in biology or physics who claims to have been taught "how key mathematical information affects the consciousness of the cells" from "multi-dimensional beings of light whose goal is to bring healing to our world" after a near-death experience.

In that post, she reviews a litany of complaints about the older backscatter x-ray scanners once employed by the Transportation Security Administration before diving into perceived health risks of the newer, millimeter wave technology:

Now they also want us to believe that the replacement technology, millimeter wave “digital strip search” scanners, are also “perfectly safe”. Don’t believe it for a second. [...] These millimeter wave technologies are designed to bombard innocent travelers with high frequency energy particles known as terahertz photons.

A study conducted by Boian S. Alexandrov et.al. at the Center for Nonlinear Studies at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, revealed that these terahertz waves could “…unzip double-stranded DNA, creating bubbles that could significantly interfere with processes such as gene expression and DNA replication.”

The new technology Froti describes, referred to by the TSA as "millimeter wave Advanced Imaging Technology", has been in common use at American airports since 2012. It works by bouncing electromagnetic waves of a specific frequency range called terahertz radiation, which is described in a 2007 report on its potential for security applications:

Terahertz (THz) waves, or submillimeter/far-infrared waves, refer to electromagnetic radiation in the frequency interval from 0.1 to 10 THz. They occupy a large portion of the electromagnetic spectrum between the mid-infrared and microwave bands.

To support her argument that these devices are dangerous, she links to a 2009 MIT Technology Review article discussing a study (the “Los Alamos study”) that sought to address interactions between the natural frequencies present in the hydrogen bonds of DNA and a THz field:

At first glance, it’s easy to dismiss any notion that they can be damaging. Terahertz photons are not energetic enough to break chemical bonds or ionise atoms or molecules, the chief reasons why higher energy photons such as x-rays and UV rays are so bad for us. But could there be another mechanism at work? [...]

[Lead author of the study Boian] Alexandrov and co have created a model to investigate how THz fields interact with double-stranded DNA and what they’ve found is remarkable. They say that although the forces generated are tiny, resonant effects allow THz waves to unzip double-stranded DNA, creating bubbles in the double strand that could significantly interfere with processes such as gene expression and DNA replication.

Because (and despite Froti's claim of "high energy") these electric fields are not strong enough to actually cleave chemical bonds, they reasoned that another mechanism must be present if terahertz fields are to impart any biologic effect. In their study, Alexandrov and colleagues wanted to investigate the possibility that terahertz radiation, because it is similar in frequencies of energy holding hydrogen bonds together, could possibly interact in a way so as to amplify each other’s signals to the point where it could break chemical bonds:

The energy of [terahertz] radiation is too low to directly disrupt any chemical bonds or cause electronic transitions. Only a resonance-type interaction might lead to an appreciable, biological effect. In biomolecules such interactions are possible through the ubiquitous hydrogen bonds that have energies in the THz range.

Ultimately, the authors found that while unlikely, it is possible that, under a set of remarkably specific conditions, such a phenomenon is possible:

We have found that a THz field may cause dynamical separations of the DNA double strand. In the presence of weak perturbations e.g. thermal fluctuations, small amplitude response occurs (at half the driving frequency) either in a spatially uniform manner or, at higher frequencies, in an unusual spatially dimerized form. In the latter case, neighboring base pairs oscillate in an out-of-phase fashion. However, large localized openings (bubbles) in the DNA double strand can only occur via a nonlinear mechanism requiring a spatial perturbation above a certain amplitude threshold that is determined by the intensity and the frequency of the THz field.

One reason Froti may have avoided the study itself is that it makes no mention of airport scanners, although the MIT Technology Review article did use them as a news hook for its story. According to the actual authors of the paper, however, their research holds no relevance to airport scanners. In an e-mail, Alexandrov (the lead author of the "Los Alamos" study), told us:

Our project is still at the level of exploratory basic research, and we have drawn no connections to full-body scanners.

Co-author Anny Usheva reiterated this point via email as well:

We never investigated if THz cleaves DNA. It has never been investigated how scanners alter DNA and the biological THz effect in the time frames that are relevant to the scanning procedures.

Indeed, she clarified that her research (on which she said they have made progress but are held up due to a lack of funding) aims to use THz radiation over much longer intervals of time to "reprogram" cells for regenerative medicine:

The work is collaborative with my lab at Harvard Medical School/presently at Brown and Los Alamos. We do the laser/THz part at Los Alamos. As a corresponding author of these publications,  I am confident to say that there is a biological effect after 8 hours of continuous broad band (0.1-10 THz) exposure. Our goal at the moment is to achieve massive and fast reprogramming of cells (outside of the body) for the needs of the regenerative medicine.

Needless to say, an airport scanner does not expose travellers to eight hours of continuous radiation. The federally funded research and development center Pacific Northwest Laboratories highlights the actual time frame on a page describing the development of the TSA’s scanners:

Scans [are] completed in 1-2 seconds using a two-array system to keep people moving through security check points quickly.

That same website, conveniently, lists all of the patents associated with the TSA's millimeter wave technology. While there are several frequency ranges associated with the methodologies patented to analyze millimeter data, the three patents that describe the actual device employed by TSA makes it clear that only a small fraction of the terahertz range is utilized, as described in the most recent patent filing:

A holographic apparatus for near real-time imaging of a target, said apparatus utilizing millimeter wave radiation having a plurality of frequencies from about 1 to about 110 GHz.

Expressed in GHz, the broadband exposure (i.e. multiple wavelengths at the same time) Usheva investigated was 100 to 10,000 GHz, a range that barely overlaps with with the TSA’s stated range of 1 to 110 GHz, and a far cry from “broad band” terahertz radiation.

The authors of the study themselves refute the claims made by the "Collective Evolution" post and the study itself is, for all intents and purposes, irrelevant to the technology utilized by airport scanners. As such, we rate this claim as false.


tsa.gov.   "TSA Announces Additional Advanced Imaging Technology Deployments at U.S. Airports." 26 January 2012.

Liu, Hai-Bo, et al.   "Terahertz Spectroscopy and Imaging for Defense and Security Applications." Proceedings of the IEEE. &nbsp: 1 October 2007.

MIT Technology Review.   "How Terahertz Waves Tear Apart DNA." 30 October 2009.

U.S. Patent No. US5455590A

Alexandrov, Boian, S., et al.   "DNA Breathing Dynamics in the Presence of a Terahertz Field" Physics Letters A.   28 October 2009.

U.S. Patent No. US5557283A

U.S. Patent No. US5859609A

Alex Kasprak is an investigative journalist and science writer reporting on scientific misinformation, online fraud, and financial crime.

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