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X-rays will damage or ruin undeveloped film, depending on several criteria:

·         X-ray dosage

·         Film sensitivity

·         Number of times x-rayed.

The claim is that security x-ray will not harm any film with a speed rating of less than 1000.  This is true if the x-ray machine is properly calibrated, and if the film is only x-rayed once -- one pass of less-than 1000 rated film will be affected, but so little that it won’t really matter.  However, x-rays, like any radiation, have a cumulative effect.  The next pass through a properly calibrated security x-ray machine will mean that the next time through the film will be affected as though it had double the speed rating.  For example, if my 400 rated film were x-rayed once, the next time through it would be affected the same as 800 film, so I probably would not notice the difference.  But if it were x-rayed again it would be affected the same as 1600 film.  I would definitely see the damage in the form of less contrast, incorrect color, and a general “fogging” effect.  Depending on film sensitivity and accumulated radiation, the film could be completely fogged.

We only travel with carry-on luggage so that we don’t have to wait for luggage to be unloaded, and we don’t have to worry about loss, theft or significant delays. But, If I did check luggage there is still the risk that it would be selected at random to be x-rayed with very high intensity radiation, and if they think they see something, they may pass the luggage thought x-ray again and again.  If I were to check luggage with film in it I’d place the film in multiple lead-lined bags, readily available at good camera shop.

What I do is completely unwrap the film and place it in a see through zip-lock plastic bag.  At the security check I hand it to security people and ask if they will hand inspect it.  Most frequently they will tell me that there will be no damage since it is less than 1000 rated film.  I tell them that I know that one pass through the x-ray machine won't hurt, but x-rays are cumulative so with my four flights it will be ruined, even if their x-ray machines are properly calibrated.  If that doesn’t work the next step is to politely request the supervisor and repeat my mantra.  If that doesn’t work I place the bag of film on the conveyor belt into the x-ray machine, but not in any luggage since they might back up the luggage with the film and x-ray it again.

Prior to the full deployment of the much superior TSA security people, film hand inspections were punitive as well as cautionary.  Then, security agents might swab each and every film canister individually, and check the swabs individually in a machine designed to detect minute traces of explosives.   This does not affect the film; only your patience.  But the TSA folks are bright, well trained, and really try to speed you along while maintaining security.  Please treat them nicely.

Outside the US we have generally been able to have our film hand inspected rather than being x-rayed, but you really have no FAA guidelines (see below) to help protect your film.  In recent years the London airports are among the very few places where the security people insist on using x-rays, and will not perform hand inspections.

This is not a problem for digital storage devices, but digital photography is another matter entirely, its technology is changing rapidly, and it requires a lengthy essay to discuss its pros and cons.  However, we have begun to use digital photography for some of the photos in recent trips.

The FAA provides air travelers in the United States the right to request a non-X-ray inspection of photo-sensitive products in FAA Reg 108.17 (PART 108-AIRPLANE OPERATOR SECURITY):

“(e) No certificate holder may use an X-ray system to inspect carry-on or checked articles unless a sign is posted in a conspicuous place at the screening station and on the X-ray system which notifies passengers that such items are being inspected by an X-ray and advises them to remove all X-ray, scientific, and high-speed film from carry-on and checked articles before inspection. This sign shall also advise passengers that they may request that an inspection be made of their photographic equipment and film packages without exposure to an X-ray system. If the X-ray system exposes any carry-on or checked articles to more than 1 milliroentgen during the inspection, the certificate holder shall post a sign which advises passengers to remove film of all kinds from their articles before inspection. If requested by passengers, their photographic equipment and film packages shall be inspected without exposure to an X-ray system.”