5/1/2013
Airport Scanners and Insulin Pumps
A Cautionary Report

If you are planning to fly and you have an insulin pump, you may want to consider the case of a New York City man who has had type 1 diabetes for over 40 years. He loves to travel, and his diabetes has never stopped him, especially now that he’s retired and plans to see the world. But recently, on a trip overseas, something unusual happened to him even before the flight took off. By the time he landed, his blood sugar (generally well regulated) had soared out of control. For a week he worked with his doctors back home and even consulted with a local physician—but just as he seemed to stabilize, the man went into diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) and had to be hospitalized.

The problem? His insulin pump. No one can say for certain what went wrong, but his doctors at the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center and the manufacturers of his insulin pump (who replaced it immediately once the man was back in the US) believe that the pump quietly malfunctioned when it went through airport security scanners. While they cannot say why, most of the insulin pump manufacturers believe that every now and then, without any indication or alarms going off, the delivery system of an insulin pump will stop working after going through an x-ray machine, MRI or body scanner. They recommend that patients with pumps not put them through these machines.

“It’s scary because there is no indication that the pump is broken,” said the patient’s physician, Lauren Golden, MD, an adult endocrinologist at the Berrie Center who helped solve this mystery along with Emily Coppedge, RN, a nurse educator at the Berrie Center. “Insulin pump manufacturers and diabetes educators are familiar with this problem, but physicians may be less so and people who use insulin pumps may often forget about it altogether. So it’s worth reminding people to temporarily disconnect from their pumps before going through airport security themselves.”

Diabetes educator Emily Coppedge believes that’s the best way around this problem. Disconnect from the pump, pass it to an agent for inspection, and then go through the scanner without the pump. Or, she says, if you don’t want to disconnect from the pump, you can ask for what the TSA refers to as a “walk through” or a “pat down” so you don’t have to go through a scanner. Still, Emily says, it’s worth noting that the TSA policy on insulin pumps is to scan them. So it’s up to the passenger to ask for an alternative. “It can get complicated,” said Emily. “TSA agents will tell you it’s fine to go through their scanners and not everyone knows that it’s not. Even if you do know, in that moment, you don’t want to feel different. You don’t want to feel like you’re holding up the line. People need to be persistent. Better to be safe than sorry.”

Update: Nearly 16,000 people viewed our Facebook post about this story when it was originally published. A number of our Facebook friends who use an OmniPod with a PDM (Personal Diabetes Manager) asked if this applied to them as well.  The OmniPod manufacturer claims that unlike other popular insulin pumps, its device can safely pass through airport scanners. However, if you are concerned or uncomfortable about going through the scanners, OmniPod suggests that you request a full-body pat down and a visual inspection of the pump instead. If you have any questions, please call your Berrie Center diabetes educator or check with the manufacturer of your insulin pump.

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