Air travel gives us incredible opportunities — to explore the world, expand our horizons, conduct business and connect with family members across the globe. And now, with the increased competition and introduction of budget airlines, it’s easier than ever to grab our bags and hop on a flight. But as we fly more and more, should we be concerned about airplane radiation?
What Is Airplane Radiation?
First, it’s important to understand what we’re talking about when we refer to airplane radiation.
True, security checkpoints — namely, the body scanners — can be a significant source of EMF radiation exposure during travel, but the term ‘airplane radiation’ actually refers to cosmic radiation that hits the plane while its in flight. That’s right: EMF from outer space.
When we live our lives on the ground, most of the cosmic radiation doesn’t reach us. It’s blocked by the Earth’s atmospheric shielding. However, the further from earth’s surface you get, the thinner the air becomes, which means that less of the cosmic rays are so deflected away. So, when we’re at 30,000 feet elevation, we’re exposed to way more of this cosmic radiation than we evolved to cope with on earth.
Cosmic radiation broadly comes in two forms: ever-present cosmic rays, and solar flare events, which are sudden eruptions of energy on the sun’s surface that send bursts of radiation and electromagnetic waves through space.
The fact that cosmic radiation exists in space in large quantities is verified by NASA, who state that “astronauts receive over ten times the radiation than what’s naturally occurring on Earth” and that “above Earth’s protective shielding, radiation exposure may increase your cancer risk.”
Of course, even very frequent airplane travelers aren’t going to be exposed to as much radiation as someone on a NASA space station. So how much radiation does a flight expose you to?
The radiation level will depend on three main factors:
- The duration of the flight. The more time you spend in the air, the more radiation you will be exposed to.
- The flight altitude. The higher you go, the further you get from Earth’s protective atmosphere.
- The flight path. If your flight path takes you closer to the North or South pole, you will be exposed to more radiation. This is because the Earth’s magnetic field partially deflects cosmic radiation away from the equator and towards the poles.
Radiation Exposure and Crew Members
To understand the effects of cosmic radiation on people who fly frequently, we can look at the case of pilots and cabin crew members. It’s interesting to note that, because they face much higher exposure to cosmic radiation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) actually classifies airline crew members as radiation workers.
In a 2009 report, the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements stated that, on average, aircrews have the highest yearly dose of radiation out of all radiation-exposed workers in the US, above that of X-ray technicians and nuclear power workers and second only to astronauts.
Similarly, when business traveler Tom Stuker became the world’s most frequent flyer in April this year, it was estimated that he accumulated a radiation dose equivalent to about 1,000 chest x-rays!
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) states that airline crew members “may be more likely to get skin cancer and female flight attendants may be more likely to get breast cancer than the general population” due to elevated levels of cosmic radiation.
Reproductive Health and Airplane Radiation
Another health effect of exposure to cosmic radiation during air travel is damage to reproductive health. A 2015 study by The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) looked at the heightened risk of miscarriage for flight attendants. While disruption to circadian rhythms was found to be a greater indicator of increased risk for miscarriage, an analysis of radiation exposure also found solar flare events to be particularly worrisome for pregnant women.
This report states that “exposure to 0.1mGy or more may be associated with increased risk of miscarriage” and that “during one of the solar particle events studied, radiation dose reached 0.45 mGy on a single flight. These data suggest that if a pregnant flight attendant works on a flight that travels through a solar particle event, she could be exposed to more radiation than is recommended during pregnancy.”
Airplanes and EMFs
Along with cosmic radiation from the atmosphere, airplanes have the added complexity of electromagnetic fields (EMFs) bouncing around inside the fuselage. These EMFs exist in things like communications equipment, cockpit computers and electrical sensors — plus, in many planes nowadays, WiFi networks. The EMF exposure to passengers is amplified by the metallic structure of the plane, which traps and therefore intensifies the fields.
How to Combat Airplane Radiation
Between cosmic radiation and human-made electromagnetic fields from modern technology in the aircraft, airplanes pose a significant radiation risk, especially for those who have existing health issues or high cancer risk, are pregnant, or are frequent travelers.
Radiation levels on a flight aren’t so high that you needn’t forgo airplane travel all together; however, the more you fly, the greater your risk, and the risk can warrant taking a few precautions.
For example, we have several customers who’ve told us that they use our SYB Baby Blanket to shield themselves when they are flying. It’s particularly useful and beneficial if you are pregnant or have a baby with you when you fly. But we also have adult customers, who aren’t pregnant, who tell us they use it for themselves during flight. It’s a protective measure that’s worth the investment.