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Q&A: Are My Digital Images Safe at the Airport?

I've been into 35mm photography for 30 years and now I've finally decided to go digital. The first question on my mind is how digital media cards handle the modern X-ray systems at airports. Do I need to take precautions to protect the cards or their pictures?

--Bruce D. Boyce, Decatur, Georgia

It's obvious why a 35mm film photographer would be worried about X-ray machines. Since 9/11, security systems at airports have been upgraded, and that sometimes means higher doses of radiation for your luggage. The Transportation Security Administration claims that the radiation exposures are not harmful to film below ISO 800, but the reality is that on any given trip, your film will be exposed to repeated does of X-rays--and the result can visibly fog your film.

But digital photographers don't have to worry about that. Digital cameras and memory cards are completely unaffected by the metal detectors and X-ray machines used at airports. You can pack memory cards in your carry-on or your checked baggage and not worry about any damage in transit.

However, there's a potential risk when you send certain kinds of memory cards through postal mail. Two years ago, the CompactFlash Association issued a warning that the irradiation techniques put in place in the wake of the anthrax scares could damage CompactFlash cards. Not a lot has been said about the subject in the intervening time, but it's best to err on the side of caution: Don't send CF cards through the U.S. Postal Service.

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