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Will the airport x-ray really damage my film? I've heard that it will and also that it son't from what should be reliable sources.



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Questions and Answers (Q & A's)

From Alan Broder (from Ocean Realm Magazine - September 1994)


The official answer to your question is that you need only to be concerned about possible damage during airport x-ray examination to films with ISO ratings of 400 or greater. This is the official answer given by Kodak Public Information Services and by the airport security authorities. Now, with all the complexities and uncertainties we have to deal with as underwater photographers, isn’t it just wonderful that your question was so simply handled—and with the full weight of credibility of the public relations department of a trusted major corporation, and that of an extension of a government agency? Who would have thought that there could be such a sure, simple, and comfortably reassuring answer to a question that might have been rephrased "will the latent images on my film (which are all I have to show for the thousands and thousands of dollars that I spent on all this camera gear, film, and the cost of this here trip) be screwed over by that hunk of atomic hardware operated by a team of nuclear technicians that airport security hires for six bucks an hour?" With all due respect to the people in security who do a fine job in helping to see to it that each of us arrives at only one destination at a give time, I question the depth of their intimacy with the principles of physical chemistry.

So a conversation with the department’s technical expert on x-radiation and its effects on photographic film emulsion might (and did) go something like this:

"If the film you’re carrying is than 400 ISO, you don’t have to worry about it."

"But what if I’m boarding more than one flight both outbound and return, and the film goes through the machine several times?"

"Well, the effects of x-rays are cumulative, but you don’t have to worry if the ISO is 400 or less."

"If you expose 200 film twice to the same amount of light required to get a given density on 400 film with one exposure, you’ll get the same density. Doesn’t it work sort of that way with x-rays?"

"I guess so, but you don’t have to worry if your film is rated at 400 ISO or less."

As a matter of fact, a reportedly exhaustive "study" was recently conducted by the National Association of Photographic Manufacturers on the effects of radiation upon carry-on baggage from x-ray inspection machines in US airports. Based on the subject evaluation of photo experts, it was reported that no detectable effects were noticed from 100 passes through the machine on film rated at 200 or less. Fog levels were not measured and the results were based on whether effects from the radiation were noticed when low contrast scenes (which should be a worst case) were evaluated. It was concluded that an "airline passenger has virtually nothing to be concerned about when his or her film is subjected to x-ray at an airport security checkpoint."

But what about ambient radiation—from the cosmos? Kodak stores its film 100 feet underground in a facility constructed of ten-foot-thick walls made of brick and gypsum in order to protect the emulsion from radioactive bombardment from space. Could there be something to this? Are effects of ambient radiation additive to effects of rays from airport security inspection? No problem for those of us storing our film in Kodak-style bunkers, but how about the rest of us who keep it in a drawer for several months? Was the above-cited study conducted with cosmically-ripened film?

Moreover, x-ray machines in the US are very strictly regulated so that it’s unlikely that there is a great variation in the amount of radiation your hand-carried luggage will receive from airport to airport in the US; however, it’s at least a little bit optimistic to assume this would be the case all over the world. Have you ever watched the images from the x-ray camera on the monitor screen as the security person is passing baggage through the machine? It’s fascinating! They have a button they push when they see something in a piece of luggage that interests them. The screen gets much brighter as they try to get some shadow detail. They’re cranking up the REMS—at least double—maybe more. I’ve seen them do this a couple of times to the same piece of luggage, then call over another security person, back it up, and zap it a couple more times—for a second opinion. Generally, carry-on baggage belonging to a few passengers passes through the machine at the same time. If they become interested in the contents of the baggage before or after yours, your film will be treated to an extra helping of radiation—perhaps a very generous one since there’s plenty to go around. If you’re fortunate enough to get a very conscientious operator, you could be watching your film do a sort of conga line over hot coals—barefoot! All rides on the conveyor belt are anything but equal. I could have sworn that on at least one occasion, they were reading a book in a passenger’s luggage! If your carry-on is going to have to run the gamma gantlet for each of several flights, the fog level could start stacking up.

You could just pack your film in your checked luggage and forego the boarding check. Problem is that if they do an x-ray exam of your checked luggage, as they sometimes do, the radiation levels used will not only far exceed a worst case scenario boarding check, they could exceed a worst case scenario for radiation levels achieved in an all-out nuclear holocaust! People have had images of their hairbrushes on processed film after packing their film in checked luggage!

How about just checking your film in one of those lead-shielded bags? No good! Either they’re going to see through the bag (and you know how) or they’re going to ask you to open it up and show them the contents. This is certainly reasonable, since anyone could hide whatever it is security’s looking for in the first place in a shielded bag, making the whole game a waste of time.

In the US, you’re legally entitled to request an receive a visual inspection of your carry-on pieces. Most airport security personnel in most countries around the world will accommodate such a request. You can make the whole process much easier if you remove the film from the boxes (and even the plastic canisters) and put it in a large transparent zip-lock bag. This makes it quick and easy to inspect, and you’ll enjoy an added bonus in doing this as you can easily stuff the bag in any irregular spaces in your carry-on.

I’d suggest that you hand-check your film whenever possible. You certainly won’t have any fogging problems from x-rays if your film is never x-rayed. I f they insist on an x-ray check? It’s kinda like a lot of other decisions we have to make in life. You protect yourself when you can—and if you can’t, and since it’s probably safe anyway, just jump on board and don’t worry about it. And if you get something back from the lab you weren’t expecting—well, you can’t win ‘em all!

A final thought: A human being is going to decide whether your film is x-rayed, just as a human being decides whether you get that traffic citation or you pay that excess baggage. Some respect and friendly smile can make the difference.




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