Q:Should I worry about film at airport x-ray machines?

A: You’ve probably all seen the signs: “Film Safe”. They're on the security x-ray machines that check your hand-carry luggage at the airports.

Yet many of us worry. You’ve heard anecdotal stories of people who have had film fogged or ruined by x-ray machines. You might be familiar with the FAA regulation that allows for hand inspections of film at these security checkpoints (a regulation that has frequently been ignored since 9/11/01). So, erring on the side of caution, you likely try to get your film hand checked, if you can. Some photographers insist on it, and end up in protracted arguments with zealous security people.

Don’t bother.

A few years ago, a well known travel photographer (who wishes to remain anonymous) explained that there was nothing to worry about. She says that the hand carry x-rays are indeed film safe, just as they claim. To prove her point, she performed an informal test.

In 2002 she hand carried all her film to all her assignments, and passed all of it through the hand-carry x-ray machines at every airport she went through. This is several hundred rolls of film, probably into the thousands. She never once asked for a hand inspection. Most of it was x-rayed repeatedly.

At the beginning of the year, she tagged one roll of slide film (a roll of Kodak E100S) and passed it through every airport she visited for the entire year. She kept track of all the places it got x-rayed. She did not use lead-lined bags or any other special packaging; it just got tossed in randomly with the rest of her hand-carry belongings.

That roll of Kodak E100S went through the hand-carry x-ray machines of 49 airports throughout North America, South America, and Asia. The x-ray machines varied from newer state-of-the-art machines in well maintained airports, to old, poorly maintained machines in third-world countries. After the end of the year, she had the test roll processed normally.

None of her normal film was fogged or damaged in any way all year. The test roll that had been x-rayed 49 times was not fogged or damaged in any way.

Of course, there will be sceptics. What about high-speed film? What about other types of film? That was just one roll...

This is perhaps not a thoroughly controlled test using scientific methods. Nevertheless, it is a real example of real life experience of a busy working travel photographer traveling through airports all over the world.

Hand-carry x-ray machines do not fog film, even after nearly 50 x-rays.

So ease your mind. Lower that blood pressure. Don’t worry about hassles with the security thugs at the airports. Just leave your film in your hand-carry and move on.

Note that this does not apply to the checked-luggage x-ray machines. Those x-ray machines are much more powerful, and will definitely fog your film. This has been well documented, and airlines are all now warning you not to put film in your checked luggage.

Happy travels!

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