Next time you visit Canada, don't forget your doctor's note. Travelers who've had recent radiation treatment, like a bone scan or thyroid therapy, could face unexpected hassles when they enter U.S. border checkpoints from Canada and Mexico. They're being pulled over for "secondary inspections," detained while officers search their cars and themselves—adding time to an already lengthy process.
It's all because they've undergone medical procedures with nuclear isotopes, which set off alarms in "radiation portal monitors" installed to foil terrorists who might be smuggling nukes or "dirty bombs." The trouble is, these travelers aren't terrorists—yet they account for the "vast majority" of radiation alarms, along with people transporting tile, kitty litter, granite and bananas, says Erlinda Byrd, a spokeswoman for the Homeland Security Department's Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, which operates the sensors.
Worse, NEWSWEEK has learned, is that out of 270 million vehicles examined by the sensors—resulting in 1.5 million alarms—not a single one has turned out to be an actual terrorist threat. According to Homeland Security officials, given permission to speak on the condition of anonymity, the Bush administration began the $300 million radiation-monitoring project in October 2002. It now includes 270 sensors along the Canadian border that screen 83 percent of U.S.-bound passengers, and 350 on the Mexican side that screen 95 percent. (Cargo shipments are screened even more closely.) And though Homeland Security first said results of those screenings were "classified," the anonymous officials later conceded that the total number of terrorists spotted by the scanners is zero.
Which is why Dr. Manuel Brown, a radiologist at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, has begun issuing doctor's notes to some of his traveling patients, explaining why they might trigger an alarm. He says facilities in his region perform about 100 radiation procedures a day. While the amount of radiation used in less-serious procedures would trigger the alarms for only a day or two, more-serious therapy (like thyroid treatment) can set off alarms for weeks. Remember that on your road trip.