The hundreds of thousands of Americans with life-saving pacemakers or defibrillators can rest assured that the devices won’t malfunction and trigger an unnecessary shock when passing through airport security gates, according to researchers in Germany.
"I was quite often asked by patients in the outpatient clinic what would happen to them or their implanted devices if they crossed an airport metal detector," said Dr. Christof Kolb, of the German Heart Center in Munich, and lead researcher of the study.
Currently, travelers with implanted pacing devices do not have to walk through metal detectors at airports, but instead submit to a thorough frisking. But Dr. Kolb said sometimes security officials don’t recognize a traveler’s pacemaker ID card. And language barriers at foreign airports can also pose a problem. When this happens travelers with heart devices wind up passing through the metal detector.
The recent study involved 348 patients, raging in age from 45 to 85 years, who had either a pacemaker or defibrillator. Biotronik, St. Jude Medical/Ventritex, Guidant, and Medtronic manufacture the devices.
Dr. Kolb and his colleagues obtained an airport metal detector gate similar to those used in the majority of airports in Canada, the U.S. and Europe. Their patients were asked to first pass through the gate at a casual pace. Then they simulated the “worst-case scenario” having patients stand in the gate for 20 seconds while turning in a complete circle. The patients were also asked to face their chests toward the metal detector while standing as close as possible to the gate.
"Our study," said Dr. Kolb, "showed no interference between the airport metal detector gate tested and implantable pacing devices."
The fear was that the metal detectors would create interference in the devices that are programmed to regulate a patient’s heartbeat. Pacemakers monitor the heart and keep it beating at a healthy rate; interference could result in dizziness or syncope. Defibrillators provide a jolt of electricity to an erratically beating heart to shock it back into normal rhythm; interference could result in an unnecessary shock.
None of the devices in the study were spontaneously reprogrammed after patients passed through the metal detector.
The results of the study are published in the June 4th issue of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
Other devices, such as cell phones and electronic theft devices in shops have been known to cause electromagnetic interference that could block pacemaker signals and interrupt normal heart rhythm. But there had been little research on airport metal detectors, until now.
The researchers conclude that clinically relevant interactions of airport security controls with pacemakers or defibrillators "seem to be unlikely."
"Currently patients do not need to cross airport metal detector gates, however," said Dr. Kolb, "if they did, it would not harm their health or their device."