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Don’t Worry (Too Much) About Radiation From Flying

Even though you're being hit with cosmic radiation 64 times more potent than when you're on the ground, relax.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Ugh, the media, right, everyone? Always with the scaremongering and complaining and the“Oh, woe is everything”—it’s enough to make you forget that, by a lot of metrics, life is steadily improving.

Here's a good reason to stress out:

— Motherboard (@motherboard) November 12, 2013

But every now and then, the ongoing terror quest uncovers something positive, like the fact the cosmic radiation you're exposed to while riding in an airliner isn’t something you should be afraid of—even though you're up in the air where cosmic radiation, streaming out of coronal mass ejections and supernovae, is 64 times more potent than it is at sea level and, as the EPA points out, you're left with "no practical ways to shield yourself from cosmic radiation during a flight." This is ionizing radiation—the bad stuff.


Sorry. Got a little media-y there for a second.

The BBC just published a smart story by Katia Moskvitch about how much radiation one receives while flying, and how scared we should be. So how much cosmic radiation, measured here in millirems, bombard you while you await your complimentary cup of ginger ale? According to Moskvitch:

Typically, passengers flying from London to Chicago could expect to be exposed to around 4.8mrem, and those travelling from Washington DC to Los Angeles would be exposed to close to 2mrem. This compares to an airport body scanner which delivers around 0.1mrem and a chest X-ray that can vary between 2mrem and 10mrem.

The fact that you're getting more than the low end of a chest X-ray in the course of your flight seems high, but even if you don't work in Sector 7G down at the nuclear plant, you're still getting hit with an average of 350mrem of radiation per year. The average US citizen, exposed to radon and thoron gas and diagnositic medical procedures, is getting 620mrem annually.

You're just not going to absorb that much, even if you're with the jet set. The group most at risk from aviation radiation is the set that jets most often—pilots and flight attendants, who receive enough exposure to be considered "radiation workers" by the FAA. Yet neither the FAA nor the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency nor the Association of Flight Attendants-CW have found that crews are at real risk. Moskvitch looked at two studies that found slightly higher rates of cancer among aircrews, but neither convincingly linked the cancer to flying. The famous insurer Lloyd's of London advises that airlines pay attention to space weather, but that has more to do with how solar flares hit electronics, not your precious human tissue.

Airline mergers are bringing us out of the era of cheap airfares anyway, so maybe this information will simply sit in the back of your mind as you're riding the Greyhound. But if you can afford to fly, sit back, relax, keep your iPad going at all times, and enjoy the friendly skies. The media bombards you with enough terrifying things already; no need to add anything else.