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Danger - the new high power Xray machines used to scan your checked baggage can destroy your film.

It takes a lot of power to punch an Xray all the way through a large suitcase - much more than is used in the machines that check carry-on items. Even a single exposure to the high powered new machines can ruin your film.

 
 
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Beware of Checked Baggage X-ray Machines


Before and after images show the major impact that a single Xray scan had on this 400ASA film.

 

 

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 Kodak website.

And this webpage has an extremely good and complete set of data, including 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

Another page on the Kodak website is even more alarming. You 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 machines.

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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Originally published 4 Jan 2002, last update 19 Dec 2013

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
 
 

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