Case dismissed? TSA ruined my diabetic insulin

The TSA’s mission is to protect America’s transportation systems and to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce. So you’d think it would be concerned if, in the process of doing its job, it endangered the lives of one of its own citizens.

Then again, maybe not.

Virjean Svoboda says her medical insulin was damaged when she checked in for a flight in Phoenix on March 9. I’ll let her explain.

Here’s the letter she sent directly to TSA administrator John Pistole.

Dear Mr. Pistole:

As a diabetic traveler totally dependent on five daily injections of two types of insulin (two injections of a long-term dose and three injections of a fast-acting short-term dose), I wish to register a complaint over the recent TSA mishandling of my diabetic carry-on items.

According to your website, I was entitled to a visual inspection of my insulin. Thus, I packed a week’s supply of my diabetic-related items along with RX labels into a clear zippered 2-gallon plastic bag and tucked this bulging bag into a larger hand tote. My six insulin pens were stored in three Medicool insulin pouches.

Prior to my security check-in for United flight #534 to Denver, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport terminal 2, approximately 7:45 a.m., Wednesday, March 9, I requested a visual inspection with the first TSA agent in line, a man.

He stated, “I cannot do that” (translation: I WILL NOT do that”). He went on to state his diabetic brother travels all the time without any problems so he placed my tote on the conveyor belt to pass through x-ray screening.

Unfortunately, a single pass was not sufficient for the TSA agents’ inspection for they ran my tote through the conveyor a second time and paused it in the X-ray beam for an estimated two minutes while they scrutinized the contents.

Having heard tales of persons who verbally challenge or dispute TSA procedures being prohibited from boarding their planes, I silently watched in horror.

Two to three days after reaching my final destination, upon taking my normal dosages, I noticed my blood glucose had gradually elevated to dangerously high levels (482±).

If no action were taken, I was a candidate for a diabetic coma. I contemplated checking into a hospital emergency room but it was a weekend and medical facilities were not readily available.

In desperation, I decided to try a very risky move—taking a double dose of my fast-acting insulin—which under ordinary circumstances probably would have sent me into insulin shock.

Voila, this miraculously worked to lower my blood glucose to an acceptable level! For the duration of my travel I continued to take a nearly double-dose of the fast-acting insulin three times daily, unaware of the consequences insulin megadoses might trigger.

Since returning home and replacing my insulin with a fresh supply, I have experienced no blood glucose problems. Therefore, I am thoroughly convinced the second passage with pause during security X-ray screening rendered my insulin unstable and ineffective. I was fortunate to live through this terrifying episode but the next diabetic traveler may not be so lucky.

Please emphasize to your agents the importance of making a visual inspection of insulin available to all diabetic passengers upon request.

Disturbing letter. I’m no doctor, but something tells me Svoboda should have consulted one before self-medicating.

You’d also think Pistole, or someone in his office, would respond to this letter.

I did a little research on this issue, and while insulin should be able to safely pass through the X-ray machines, there are some reports that it could be damaged or contaminated. However, the only ones I could find that had any credibility say insulin pumps — not insulin — would be harmed by X-rays.

One forum posting had the following to say about insulin and screening:

Pharmaceutical companies like Novo Nordisk have done a number of studies on x-ray exposure to insulin and the concern is that with repeated or prolonged exposure to X-rays, there is a possibility that the insulin could be denatured from repeated exposure to X-rays and lose effectiveness.

It was enough for me to ask TSA for a comment on March 19. An agency representative responded and promised to get back to me. We went back and forth several times, but as of today, neither Svoboda nor I have received a formal response from the agency.

I can almost see this TSA’s way. If there’s no way medical insulin can be contaminated by an X-ray, then Svoboda’s complaint is frivolous. But even if there’s no link, the agency should have given her the courtesy of a response — even a form letter.

On the other hand, if there’s a chance she’s right, and TSA agents in Phoenix are forcing insulin to be screened by X-ray and damaging it, then this is something the agency needs to address immediately. The agency’s silence on this issue is unhelpful.

What do you think?

(Photo: Jill Br own/Flickr Creative Commons)

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Alfred

    X-Ray Beams can cause the molecular level to become unstable. This same frequency process is used in Alcohol detection in Breathalyzers where they spin the molecule using frequencies. Insulin is held together by a Zinc Bond, and X-Rays may disconnect the Bond and render the insulin unstable or cause some electrical properties to change that make it repel veses attract making absorbsion into a cell impossible or very hard if it gets polarized.
    Surprizingly the FDA doesnt require medicines to be tested for X-Ray infuences but, it should, and if it doesnt then the TSA has no business subjecting medicines to X-Ray if the FDA has not ruled it out as a problem.
    Basically the TSA is inept and foolish testing insulin as if it were explosive material requires them to put frequency not just XRAY through the medicines and YES it DOES ALTER THE PROPERTIES!

  • disquux

    Passing things (such as certain medicines) through an X-ray machine might have other effects besides heating from the beam (not enough duration) or ionizing radiation (apparently doesn’t affect anything in this case?).

    Here are the two questions I would ask before dismissing this:

    1. It’s not just the insulin, it’s the syringe. Maybe the steel needle gets too hot, or the plastic starts cooking enough to interact with the contents, or something like that?

    2. Just what is the temperature inside the machine? There must be a big power supply.
    How hot is it, and how long does it take to start cooking the package and medicine?

    And I would note that the medicine already had an environmental history before getting to the airport. Maybe whatever happened in the machine pushed it past it’s total limits.

  • disquux

    Just what is the temperature inside the machine? There must be a big power supply.
    How hot is it, and how long does it take to start cooking the package or medicine?

    And I would note that the medicine already had an environmental history before getting to the airport. Maybe whatever happened in the machine pushed it past it’s total limits.

  • Lisa Simeone

    The comments on this blog by TSA apologists, such as Cassivella and Eighmeagh, are always so telling: I never saw these things, and they never happened to me; therefore, they aren’t happening! Q.E.D.

    The thousands of accounts of TSA abuse — and those are only the ones that get publicized — most people’s stories don’t get into newspapers — can all be dismissed, belittled, or otherwise swept under the rug. “I’m not getting molested, so what do I care if somebody else is?” That’s the sentiment.

  • Jenny Spaghetti

    Does no-one else wonder what the TSA agent expected to see after 2 minutes under the x-ray that he didn’t see after the first time through? Or after 10 or 15 or 30 seconds of the second time through? Did he figure the vials would have “Liquid Explosives – For Use By Terrorists” in lead paint on the inside or something?

    Yes, I think this woman probably (severely?) overreacted to the situation. It’s possible she didn’t follow the correct “procedure” for receiving the inspection she requested. If so, the agent DEFINITELY should have told her, “If you want that done, you need to do X, Y, and Z before you get here.” rather than “I can’t do that.”

    But it also seems that the agent was having a bad attitude. TSA agents know how most people are worried about being treated and should at least try to be sympathetic to that rather than going on a power trip. If you can’t handle treating the general public as though they’re human beings, you shouldn’t be in a job where you interact with the public. Simple. Degrading everyone ≠ making terrorists easier to find.

    Also, people who are willing to give up their rights for “government protection” don’t deserve the rights they have and are morons. The government, as an entity, doesn’t give a crap about your well-being and best interests.

  • RN

    As an RN, it is clear to me you have no medical knowledge of diabetes, insulin, and the signs & symptoms of high or low blood sugars. Confusion and altered mental status are themselves symptoms of her hyperglycemia. As she states she is “TOTALLY” dependent on insulin, that suggests she has Type 1 diabetes which is characterized by a complete lack of ability to produce her own insulin, and is not caused by poor diet. Her case against TSA is further supported by the fact that when she got home & had a fresh supply of insulin, her blood glucose levels returned to normal. Please take the time to become educated about the topic before condemning someone.

  • Truck9009

    I fly regularly, too. It is amazing what getting there a little earlier, and having the time to DEMAND that they follow their own rules, can accomplish. If they think that you have to rush to a plane, you will get nothing but stonewalling. Informing them that you have all the time in the world, to stand up for yourself, makes them cringe. Being the type of person, who enjoys a good argument/debate, I show up extra early, just so I can entertain myself.

  • Truck9009

    Having the specific webpage loaded onto your phone can help matters, too.

  • Truck9009

    So you’ve conducted tests, in your pharmacy, that included exposing insulin to repeated doses of xrays? Gotta love it, when “experts” show up, to explain to us how stupid we uneducated people are. After reading the article, it seems that evidence is inconclusive, as to the effects of xrays on insulin.
    Regardless of those effects, the point of the article is that, despite their web site stating that visual inspection is an option, the agents in PHX denied this woman that option. This may have been what triggered her “stress”. I’m sure that she’s sorry, that she’s not as cool, calm, and collected as you seem to be.

  • Truck9009

    She shouldn’t have had to repeat her “request”, to the agent. The first time that she said it was enough. It is the TSA agents’ responsibility to know their regulations and exceptions. Her second “request” should have been made to a supervisor.
    The x-rays heating the insulin wasn’t the problem. The radiation leaking from the reactors in Japan is causing a heating problem. It is a matter of radiation destroying biological compounds (DNA, insulin, etc). I’ve read where you work in a pharmacy. Do you moonlight as a theoretical nuclear physicist, as well?
    There is an implied admission, of the possibility of x-rays damaging insulin, or else TSA wouldn’t have bothered listing it, on their web site, as one of the items that can be manually inspected.

  • Truck9009

    High altitudes would only have an effect, if she were standing on the wing, outside the pressurized plane. Generally, planes are over-pressurized, at altitude.

  • Truck9009

    That doesn’t sound any worse, than at any other airport. I fly all over the US, and their attitudes don’t generally change much, due to location. The only factor, that I’ve noticed, is that agents in smaller airports tend to have way too much free time, to make up for their feelings of inferiority, at being stuck in a dinky little airport.

  • Cassivella

    You do realize you don’t have the right to do whatever you want in our country?

    That is my point.

    When ancient humans started gathering together and forming governments, there were social contracts where individuals left some of their rights at the door (like the right to arbitrarily go around killing people) in order to gain the security (physical security, economic security) the government could provide.

    This is the entire basis of what government is – individuals give up certain rights (like avenging murder) so that the government can do so on behalf of the citizen.

    I didn’t say we had to give up constitutional rights. If I meant that, I would have said so. The term “rights” is much broader than our constitution.

  • Arlington, VA

    The American Diabetes Association serves as an advocate for diabetics before the TSA. They have a complaint procedure for this type of thing. She should ask them to intervene here as well for the sake of all diabetics. (Full disclosure: my husband is a diabetic.)

  • Cassivella

    I am not an apologist.

    And I believe you make my point for me.

    You believe that anecdotes are proof of some sort of government conspiracy.

    Anecdotes are by definition simply one person’s version of an event. They are not evidence that has been accepted into court. They are not verified by anyone other than the speaker.

    While you believe that is a couple of people are screaming that the government is molesting them, I am waiting for proof. I am waiting for one of these people to file criminal charges (and I have never heard of anyone doing this – if you have, please let me know). I am waiting for someone to file a civil lawsuit saying they were abused.

    When there is ANY proof that TSA agents are abusing Americans, then I will take these claims seriously. But, as no one has any proof that will stand up in court, all we have is anecdotes. And those are otherwise known as fish stories. And we know how those pervert the truth.

  • Annapolis2

    We’re talking past each other, Cassivella. You are asking for proof that TSA is abusing Americans, and I point to video and audio evidence. You would like proof that a civil lawsuit has been filed? There are, in fact, dozens of lawsuits against the TSA’s disgusting reign of terror, and I’m hoping that every single one will be successful. Lawsuits take time, so none of these except the first has been decided. Here are just a few:

    Amarillo woman sues TSA for exposing her breasts and laughing at her: [The TSA settled this lawsuit out of court by paying off the woman.]

    Robin Kassner thrown across the room and beaten by airport security guards – caught on video:

    Pilots sue for invasive searches:

    TSA out of our pants lawsuit:

    Gary Fielder lawsuit:

    Robert Dean’s lawsuit:

    12-year-old sent through naked imager without parental consent:

    Jonathan Blitz lawsuit:

    Jesse Ventura lawsuit:

    Claire Hirschkind, rape victim, dragged facedown through the airport lawsuit:

    Adrienne Durso sues for aggressive breast groping:

  • Lisa Simeone

    Nein, liebchen. I haven’t used the word “conspiracy”; you have. I’ve never claimed a “government conspiracy.” I’ve claimed that the TSA is bullying, intimidating, harassing, and abusing us. It’s not a conspiracy; it’s just business as usual.

    You’re wrong about the value of anecdotal evidence and you’re wrong about lawsuits; there have been several, some of which the TSA has settled because their behavior was so egregious and they didn’t want any more bad publicity, some of which are still making their way through the courts. Links below. Many people can’t afford to go to court — legal expenses for Phil Mocek, for example (he won his case), were through the roof. And that’s cold comfort anyway: “Sorry, honey, we assaulted you, but you’ll have to sue us to get justice. And even if you win, we can always assault you again!”

    Woman whose breasts exposed in pat-down settles with TSA
    . . . Murley claimed that a TSA agent pulled her blouse completely down, exposing her breasts to everyone in the area. Despite her embarrassment, the lawsuit claims that TSA employees in the area continued to joke and laugh about the incident for an extended period of time . . . the male TSA staffer said he was disappointed that he missed her blouse being yanked down, then said “he would just have to watch the video.”

    From the Washington Post, re the EPIC lawsuit that began March 10th in the DC Court of Appeals:
    Tatel and Judge Karen Henderson questioned whether the TSA would be within its authority to determine one day that the security threat required that all passengers be strip searched. Brinkmann said TSA could make such a determination without public input, as it did with the body scanners.

    Under suspicion: Millions paid to former suspects
    By The Associated Press
    In recent years the federal government or its contractors have paid millions of dollars to settle lawsuits filed by people who say they were unfairly detained or harassed because of terrorism fears. The payments include:

    Student Handcuffed for English-Arabic Flashcards Sues TSA, FBI

    By Matthew Rothschild, February 10, 2010

    Video: Woman Beaten; 71-year-old man & 16-year-old girl groped, stripped

    I’m probably way over my Disqus comment limit. I can’t reproduce here every single news article from the thousands compiled by me, the ACLU, EPIC, Amy Alkon, Sommer Gentry, Daniel Rubin, Jennifer Abel, Patricia Stokes, and other journalists who give a s**t. These assaults are going on, all over the country, every day. But keep sticking your head in the sand. And keep using that handy moniker “conspiracy” whenever you want to discredit an argument.

  • ADA_Laws1970

    I want to say, that I am Diabetic Type I (NPH & R), since childhood. I Need to shot twice, daily. I experienced the exactly SAME situation as Ms. SVoboda. I had an emergency travel from NY to CA and used JetBlue line, which indeed is a real nightmare. I took my insulin bottles and Diabetic stuff with me in my pocket, and once I arrived, I had to shot myself after the inconveniences caused by a rude flight attendants of them. After having the one, I almost noticed the insulin was useless and not effective. It was easy to know, something was wrong with it. Usually, when the medicine is good, the effects and results are immediately seen and felt, but when they don’t work, elevated sugar blood levels is to be expected; the body will react on the contrary and the sugar levels will keep up raising. Just as Ms SVoboda said, we seem to know our bodies functionality quite well, it’s quite easy to recognize whether the doses work or not. So I had to add extra doses to my regular shots, and shot more than expected until I could find a new prescription in the other state. All that was the result of the “nice” service of this airline and their x rays and improper scanning. A total discrimination against the Diabetic people who depend from such medicine in order to live and survive from an out of hand situation. As if we, had the option of something else. It is easy for healthy people to solve the issue and tell Ms. SVoboda: “Go to ER”, because they are not the ones who should probable live the hell confined to a hospital bed, tied up with IV’s, needles all over, as if our bodies were of iron instead of flesh and nerves. Novo Nordisk seem to know about this matter since they did left the “JIC” warning of: ” (…) prolonged exposure to X-rays, there is a possibility that the insulin could be denatured from repeated exposure to X-rays and lose effectiveness.” Indeed, they do know about the matter, but who’s legislating about it?

  • flutiefan

    not for nothing, but the temperature inside the machine isn’t high. that’s how babies have passed through unharmed (yes, i have seen this happen at my home airport by ignorant parents who think “place everything on the conveyor belt” includes their children). have you ever noticed your bag or its contents feeling overheated after passing through the xray scanner? me neither.

  • Ajaynejr

    Do X-ray machines at the checkpoint really leave the X-rays on continuously while objects sit still on the conveyor belt and the agent examines the video screen?

    No wonder people have been saying that their film got ruined while all the “experts” say that one or two passes through the machines won’t damage the film.

  • Nigel

    Years ago (25ish) I was the manager of Screening at a Canadian Airport. At that time a passenger could ask for ANYTHING to be handscreened and we would comply. My understanding is that with TSA and CATSA, passengers still have the right to have any item handscreened. When I was still using film in my camera and asked for handscreening of camera and film it was done willingly, however on one trip I had to fight to get handscreening and was just about to ask for the supervisor because the agent wouldn’t handscreen, when the supervisor came over and asked what the problem was. I said I would like my film and camera handscreened please. He immediately said he would do it and did. So when I collected them afterwards I said thank you to him. I hope he said something to the agent but I don’t know. I know these comments started because of insulin but the issue is that passengers should have the right to have anything handscreend for whatever reason, if they don’t anymore. My argument was the same, one pass through the Xray machine may not harm the film/ but repeated passes during the trip may and I have had film ruined. That seems to be the poblem with the insulin, one pass maybe OK but more exposure caused problems.

  • Nevermore1

    As for the original issue – whether or not the TSA should have responded to her complaint I think they should have at least sent a form letter so she would have known whether or not they received it. As for the x-ray damaging the insulin – I find that hard to believe. The insulin she has has most likely already been through multiple x-ray machines when it was shipped from the manufacturer to the distributor then possibly even to the pharmacy she had it filled at. Shipping companies often times x-ray the packages they are shipping to verify contents (my husband works for one and they x-ray every package that goes through their company). It just sounds to me as though she is trying to come up with a reason to threaten a lawsuit. In my opinion she was extremely irresponsible and has no one to blame for what happened to her except for herself. If her BG levels were elevated she should have either called her doctor, gone to the ER/urgent care facility or had her prescription transferred from her pharmacy to a local pharmacy so that she could get a refill (it’s possible she had old insulin).

  • cjr001

    “You are a highly disturbed individual.”

    Well, if standing up for my rights means I’m highly disturbed, then I’ll embrace such terms with open arms.

  • HotelDiva

    Agree with Brooklyn below. Having said that however, I have been an insulin-dependent diabetic for more than 30 years now (6 injections daily) and, coincidentally have had a career in the travel industry for 25 of those year, during which I have submitted my 2 bottles (fast acting and sustained release) countless times for x-ray. No damage whatsoever. Perhaps her elevated levels may have been due to just the inherent stress and aggravation of travel in this post-9/11 age. TSA certainly doesn’t make travel easy although I have never had any bad experiences in this country; France, on the other hand, but I digress….