Airport security screening with hand-held metal detectors is most likely safe for people with devices to help the heart beat regularly, such as pacemakers and implantable defibrillators, a European study said.
There have been some reports of magnetic fields, such as those produced by airport metal detectors, interfering with the devices, and travelers who have them are advised to ask for a pat-down at airport security—causing frequent problems for the patients, said Clemens Jilek of the German Heart Center Munich, one of the study's authors.
About 700,000 people worldwide who have heart rhythm disturbances get a pacemaker or defibrillator each year.
"With the wide variety of rhythm devices we tested, we have not seen any interference between two hand-held metal detectors that are broadly available worldwide," Jilek told Reuters Health.
"Our conclusion would be that screening procedures with a normal, available hand-held metal detector are safe."
Previous research has linked MP3 players and anti-theft technology to problems with the devices. In patients who would have no heartbeat on their own, some kinds of strong magnetic interference could potentially be fatal, Jilek added.
For the study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers in Munich and Athens used two detectors for 30 seconds each on 388 people with a pacemaker or implantable defibrillator coming in for a routine checkup.
While the researchers swiped the metal detectors over the skin around the heart devices and attached leads, an electrocardiogram checked to see if the patient's heart rhythm was thrown off or not. They also checked to see if there were problems with the programing of the devices.
The metal detectors were set to the strongest setting and used on pacemakers from 11 different companies and implantable defibrillators from seven companies, representing about 75 percent of the different devices on the market.
During and after the experiments, researchers saw nothing out of the ordinary.
Jilek and his colleagues cautioned that the findings don't definitively prove that the metal detectors are fine to use with all heart devices, because the tests were done in exam rooms, not in busy airport environments, and that they didn't check every kind of heart device.
"It's reassuring that people with these devices don't have to worry about getting screened with these wands," said Charles Berul, the head of cardiology at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.