Exposure to Cosmic Ionizing Radiation in Aircraft


Cosmic ionizing radiation is a form of ionizing radiation that comes from outer space. A very small amount of this radiation reaches the earth and at flight altitudes, passengers and crew members are exposed to higher levels of this radiation. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) inform the public that ionizing radiation may cause cancer in humans and is also known to cause reproductive problems such as miscarriages and birth defects.

We currently do not know what levels of cosmic radiation are safe for every person, therefore if you have these symptoms and were exposed to cosmic ionization, we still can not say if it was caused by your work conditions (exposure) or something else. The National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements reported that aircrew have the largest average annual effective dose (3.07 mSv) of all US radiation-exposed workers. Currently, there is no official dose limit in the United States, but there are national and international guidelines.

Crew members can reduce their exposure to cosmic radiation by reducing their time working on long flights, flights high in latitude, and/or flights which fly over the poles. These conditions tend to increase the amount of exposure to cosmic radiation and flight crews bid for flight schedules that avoid such criteria. Another form of cosmic radiation is solar cell particle events or “solar flares.” The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) estimates that pilots fly through about 6 solar particle events in an average 28-year career. It is difficult to avoid solar particle events because they often happen with little warning. Luckily, there are sources available to determine whether a solar particle event is currently active by visiting NASA’s Nowcast of Atmospheric Ionizing Radiation System (NAIRAS) website. This site is available to view developed reports on potentially harmful flight radiation levels over certain geographical locations.

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