Zapping photos


Q: I work at a camera store and am often asked if X-ray scans will harm film. I recently heard a rumor that the scans are increasing their intensity. Is that true? What should I tell my customers?

— Kristopher Plog, Peoria, Ill.

A: It’s true, the scans are getting stronger. But the Federal Aviation Administration and the airlines apparently don’t want you to know about it.

Last year the government deployed 74 new security scanners for checked luggage throughout the United States. This year it expects to install more, although it won’t say how many or where. The FAA tested these new machines with help from the Photographic & Imaging Manufacturers Association (PIMA), a trade organization for photographic and imaging products, and found that the scanners can indeed damage your undeveloped film.

One model, the CTX-5500DS, cuts a discoloring band through film, while another, the eXaminer 3DX 6000, makes pictures appear as if they encountered a fog bank.

The photo industry is put out about the lack of disclosure. Tom Dufficy, the executive vice president of PIMA, told me no one is being warned of the dangers that the machines can inflict on film. He wants more signs posted at the airport to caution travelers.

I can’t think of any valid excuse for failing to alert travelers to the destruction these machines can visit on their vacation memories. The FAA assures me it is about to issue a press release on the subject. Meanwhile, organizations like Film Safety for Traveling on Planes is lobbying for more public awareness. I’d say it’s about time.

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Tell your customers to carry their film with them. Don’t check the rolls in, don’t let them go through the X-ray machine at the security checkpoint. In the United States, you have the right to a hand-check of your carry-on items. If a security guard insists on running your film through the conveyer belt, you can do one of two things: ask for a supervisor, who will know all the rules and regulations, or forget about it and let the film through.

A single exposure to the X-rays at a security checkpoint probably won’t sabotage your undeveloped film. Only multiple runs through the conveyor belt will affect the most sensitive film (1200 speed and higher). Most pictures are taken on 100 speed film, give or take a hundred.

On overseas trips, where you may not be allowed to ask for a manual inspection, try getting the film developed before you leave. You can run prints through the X-ray machine for checked luggage to your heart’s content without hurting them.

Want more information? The Photographic & Imaging Manufacturers Association site at http://www.pima.net is regularly updated with news on airport scanners. A new study has just been published on the topic.

Also, a group called Film Safety for Traveling on Planes, or FSTOP, at http://www.f-stop.org, offers information about getting around the scanners. For the lowdown on the scanners, go to Invision Technologies’ site at http://www.InVision-tech.com (it manufactures the CTX-5500DS) or L-3 Communications’ page at http://www.l-3com.com ( it makes the eXaminer 3DX 6000).


Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on our help forum.

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