The Daily Q: Is the NYPD’s new gun detection scanner safe?

Is the NYPD’s new gun detection scanner safe?

The NYPD announced this week that it’s working on a new scanner that could detect firearms underneath suspects’ clothing from 80 feet away using terahertz — the part of the electromagnetic spectrum in between microwaves and infrared light. As WNYC reported, technology could potentially reduce the number of people who are stopped under the current stop, question and frisk policy.

The New York World wants to know, given the recent controversy that new airport full-body scanners can lead to rare cancer and that this technology will likely be used heavily in poor or minority neighborhoods, is terahertz scanning proven safe?

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What we found

Details on the new technology are sketchy (NYPD didn’t return our calls), but scientists at both the Los Alamos National Laboratory and University of Pittsburgh have looked at how terahertz waves affect DNA. The answer: we shouldn’t be worried.

Terahertz waves aren’t nearly as power as X-rays or other forms of radiation that can damage DNA and lead to cancer, said Dr. Eric Swanson of the University of Pittsburgh. That being said, in 2009 researchers at Los Alamos found that terahertz waves can theoretically damage DNA through another method: resonance.

Because DNA strands resonate at around 1 THz, in the same way that an opera singer can shatter a glass by finding the pitch it resonates at, THz waves can sometimes break apart DNA, if the wavelengths are just right. But this model only shows how DNA on its own responds to electromagnetic radiation, says Swanson, and doesn’t take into account that DNA is protected by the mass of the cell that encloses it. “It’s basically impossible to tunnel into the middle of the cell,” he said. Swanson led a study, published in 2011, that confirmed his hypothesis.

“My research, every other reputable paper I have read, and my common sense tell me that [DNA damage] is *extremely* unlikely,” he wrote in an email. “The nucleus of the cell is simply too well shielded from external electrical influences to even notice that a scanner is in operation.”

A benign health rating, however, doesn’t mean it will be smooth sailing for the new gun detector. Civil liberties advocates are already worried that being scanned with through your clothes with electromagnetic waves is an invasion of privacy. But, hey, it seemed to work fine in Total Recall.

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