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Baby sent though airport X-ray machine


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Comment: Though explained away as an "accident," the guilty until proven innocent, 100% suspicion at all times, authoritarian absurdness environment that has been created in airports most likely led this Spanish woman simply to assume that she had to x-ray her baby in the interests of security.

LOS ANGELES -- A woman going through security at Los Angeles International Airport put her month-old grandson into a plastic bin intended for carry-on items and slid it into an X-ray machine.

The early Saturday accident -- bizarre but not unprecedented -- caught airport workers by surprise, even though the security line was not busy at the time, officials said.

A screener watching the machine's monitor immediately noticed the outline of a baby and pulled the bin backward on the conveyor belt. The infant was taken to Centinela Hospital, where doctors determined that he did not receive a dangerous dose of radiation.

Aviation officials, who declined to release the 56-year-old woman's name, said she spoke Spanish and apparently did not understand English. She initially did not want the baby transported to a hospital, but security officials called paramedics and insisted that the child be examined by a doctor.

The grandmother and the child were subsequently allowed to board an Alaska Airlines flight to Mexico City.

The incident drew attention to whether aviation officials are staffing often-busy security checkpoints adequately enough to prevent such an accident. And it raised questions about the danger of X-rays used to pick out suspicious metal shapes in passenger bags, given the medical community's warnings that even low amounts of radiation that can build up over a lifetime.

"Rather than focus on the radiation dose, which is a small amount, we need to focus on why this happened, so it doesn't happen again," said Dr. James Borgstede, a clinical professor of radiology at the University of Colorado and president of the American College of Radiology. "Human beings weren't meant to go through those things."

In the several seconds the baby spent in the machine, the doctor added, he was exposed to as much radiation as he would naturally get from cosmic rays -- or high energy from outer space -- in a day.

Security experts said the incident underscored a more widespread concern about the screening process at LAX and other airports.

"The screeners are still reporting that they're being pushed," said Brian Sullivan, a retired Federal Aviation Administration security agent. "If a baby can get through, what the hell else can get through?"

Nico Melendez, a spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration, which manages LAX screeners, said the agency does not have enough workers to constantly stand at tables in front of the screeners to coach passengers on what should or should not be placed through X-ray machines.

But in some cases, airlines contract with private companies to staff the tables and assist travelers. The TSA will also occasionally put employees at the tables if extra workers are available.

TSA screeners often ask passengers to remove their coats, shoes, laptops and other items and put them into the bins, Melendez said. But they cannot observe everything people put there, because they must monitor screening equipment, he said.

Still, he said the TSA works hard to educate passengers about what carry-on objects require screening and that travelers must take responsibility for knowing these rules.

"There's an obligation on the traveler to use some common sense," said Larry Fetters, the TSA's federal security director at LAX. "If they don't understand, they should ask somebody. If they ask us, we are generally able to find someone who speaks that language and assist them."

On its Web site, the TSA posts extensive tips for travelers, including a section titled "Traveling With Children." Listed among the items is a sentence that reads: "Never leave babies in an infant carrier while it goes through the X-ray machine."

There are also signs posted in English and Spanish at ticket counters and near security checkpoints warning passengers that they must put cell phones, pagers, car keys and other metal objects into bins that go through X-ray machines.

Airport and TSA officials said because the incident is so rare, and because the health risk is so low, they did not plan to issue specific warnings to passengers to not put children through X-ray machines.

"This was an innocent mistake by an obviously inexperienced traveler," said Paul Haney, deputy executive director of airports and security for the city's airport agency. "This is only the second time in nearly 20 years that anyone can recall a traveler mistakenly putting an infant through an airport X-ray machine. Since then LAX has served more than 1 billion travelers without an incident of this type."

In 1988, an infant in a car seat went through an X-ray machine at LAX Terminal 4.

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