Radiation Exposure and Air Travel – Should We Worry?

How Much Radiation Exposure Do We Get While Flying?

The meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan, news that cellphones could cause cancer, and the TSA’s implementation of full-body scanners have all renewed public worry about radiation exposure.

And while the outcry over cellphones and body scanners might make for better headlines, experts are quick to point out that most people are exposed to small amounts of radiation every day.

In fact, the travelers who are rallying against scanner technology because of concerns about cancer should be more concerned about stepping on a plane, researchers say.

According to an article written by University of Minnesota radiology researchers, here are some stats on just how much radiation you get on a plane and how it can impact your health:

  • The amount of high-altitude cosmic radiation that travelers are exposed to during a six-hour flight is 200 to 400 times greater than a dose received by walking through one of the TSA’s backscatter X-ray scanners.
  • For every 1 million air travelers, an estimated 600 additional cancers could occur as a result of exposure to high-altitude radiation. By comparison, they estimate one additional cancer death for every 200 million scans.
  • The amount of radiation passengers are exposed to while flying is less than half of the radiation they’re exposed to when receiving a chest X-ray.

Associate professor Michael D. Story, who works at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas in the Division of Molecular Radiation Biology, told NBC that if you?re not worried about the radiation you get flying, then you shouldn’t be worried about radiation from the scanner.

It is important to note that these numbers are just estimates. The researchers and the National Council on Radiation Protection say that it is difficult to accurately determine the relationship between such small doses of radiation and the risk of cancer in a large population of people over a period of time. The general population, researchers say, is already at a fairly high lifetime risk of developing cancer (44 percent for men and 38 percent for women) independent of exposure to things like scanners or cellphones.

How Much Radiation Is Too Much?

The National Council of Radiation Protection recommends a maximum 1 mSv (millisieverts) the unit of measure for radiation) dose of radiation for the general public. They also recommend a limit on ?controllable sources? of exposure (of which flying could be included) to 0.25 mSv. A person would have to spend 22 hours in the air annually to get this level of exposure.

It is commonly agreed upon that frequent travelers are not at greater health risk because of their exposure to cosmic radiation. There is, however, more concern for pregnant women as high levels of radiation exposure can affect fetal development. Still, experts agree that babies who receive small amounts of radiation (less than the equivalent of 500 chest X-rays) are not at greater risk for birth defects.

Before you vow never to step on a plane again out of fear of putting yourself at risk for cancer, compare the amount of radiation you are exposed to in your normal daily life:

CT Scan: 10 mSv
Breathing radon gas found in the air: 2.28 mSv
Consuming food: 0.4 mSv
Living in a state that borders the Gulf or the Atlantic coast: 0.16 mSv
Smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day: 0.18 mSv
Living in stone/adobe/brick/concrete building: 0.07 mSv
Chest X-ray: 0.02 mSv
Flying in an airplane for one hour: 0.005 mSv
Living within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant: 0.0001 mSv

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Published: June 23, 2011