Case dismissed? TSA ruined my diabetic insulin

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By Christopher Elliott

The TSA’s mission is to protect America’s transportation systems and to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce. So you’d think it would be concerned if, in the process of doing its job, it endangered the lives of one of its own citizens.

Then again, maybe not.

Virjean Svoboda says her medical insulin was damaged when she checked in for a flight in Phoenix on March 9. I’ll let her explain.

Here’s the letter she sent directly to TSA administrator John Pistole

Dear Mr. Pistole:

As a diabetic traveler totally dependent on five daily injections of two types of insulin (two injections of a long-term dose and three injections of a fast-acting short-term dose), I wish to register a complaint over the recent TSA mishandling of my diabetic carry-on items.

According to your website, I was entitled to a visual inspection of my insulin. Thus, I packed a week’s supply of my diabetic-related items along with RX labels into a clear zippered 2-gallon plastic bag and tucked this bulging bag into a larger hand tote. My six insulin pens were stored in three Medicool insulin pouches.

Prior to my security check-in for United flight #534 to Denver, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport terminal 2, approximately 7:45 a.m., Wednesday, March 9, I requested a visual inspection with the first TSA agent in line, a man.

He stated, “I cannot do that” (translation: I WILL NOT do that”). He went on to state his diabetic brother travels all the time without any problems so he placed my tote on the conveyor belt to pass through x-ray screening.

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Unfortunately, a single pass was not sufficient for the TSA agents’ inspection for they ran my tote through the conveyor a second time and paused it in the X-ray beam for an estimated two minutes while they scrutinized the contents.

Having heard tales of persons who verbally challenge or dispute TSA procedures being prohibited from boarding their planes, I silently watched in horror.

Two to three days after reaching my final destination, upon taking my normal dosages, I noticed my blood glucose had gradually elevated to dangerously high levels (482±).

If no action were taken, I was a candidate for a diabetic coma. I contemplated checking into a hospital emergency room but it was a weekend and medical facilities were not readily available.

In desperation, I decided to try a very risky move—taking a double dose of my fast-acting insulin—which under ordinary circumstances probably would have sent me into insulin shock.

Voila, this miraculously worked to lower my blood glucose to an acceptable level! For the duration of my travel I continued to take a nearly double-dose of the fast-acting insulin three times daily, unaware of the consequences insulin megadoses might trigger.

Since returning home and replacing my insulin with a fresh supply, I have experienced no blood glucose problems. Therefore, I am thoroughly convinced the second passage with pause during security X-ray screening rendered my insulin unstable and ineffective. I was fortunate to live through this terrifying episode but the next diabetic traveler may not be so lucky.

Please emphasize to your agents the importance of making a visual inspection of insulin available to all diabetic passengers upon request.

Disturbing letter. I’m no doctor, but something tells me Svoboda should have consulted one before self-medicating.

You’d also think Pistole, or someone in his office, would respond to this letter.

I did a little research on this issue, and while insulin should be able to safely pass through the X-ray machines, there are some reports that it could be damaged or contaminated. However, the only ones I could find that had any credibility say insulin pumps — not insulin — would be harmed by X-rays.

One forum posting had the following to say about insulin and screening:

Pharmaceutical companies like Novo Nordisk have done a number of studies on x-ray exposure to insulin and the concern is that with repeated or prolonged exposure to X-rays, there is a possibility that the insulin could be denatured from repeated exposure to X-rays and lose effectiveness.

It was enough for me to ask TSA for a comment on March 19. An agency representative responded and promised to get back to me. We went back and forth several times, but as of today, neither Svoboda nor I have received a formal response from the agency. (Here’s how to handle the TSA when you travel.)

I can almost see this TSA’s way. If there’s no way medical insulin can be contaminated by an X-ray, then Svoboda’s complaint is frivolous. But even if there’s no link, the agency should have given her the courtesy of a response — even a form letter.

On the other hand, if there’s a chance she’s right, and TSA agents in Phoenix are forcing insulin to be screened by X-ray and damaging it, then this is something the agency needs to address immediately. The agency’s silence on this issue is unhelpful. (Here’s what you need to know when you are flying with diabetes.)

What do you think?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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