Flight Crew & Frequent Flyer Radiation Exposure

Flight Crew & Frequent Flyer Radiation Exposure

Flight Crew & Frequent Flyer Radiation Exposure is a topic that needs to be reviewed by both public and private sectors. When thinking about radiation exposure the most common image is the one of a health care worker, personnel of a nuclear facility or perhaps people on activities related to mining, particularly uranium. Seldom do we think about exposure to ionizing radiation when flying. Nowadays the most common source of exposure to radiation is manmade.

Since the beginning of time, human beings have been exposed to natural sources of ionizing radiation. Our planet is constantly being exposed to radiation; the atmosphere is constantly bombarded by cosmic rays while on the cortex of the earth there are several radioactive minerals. These along with other sources contribute to background radiation, which is a natural phenomenon. Everyone on the planet absorbs background radiation and the calculated average exposure of a human being is about 1.5 – 2.0 millisieverts/year.[1]

The atmosphere serves a type of shield against cosmic radiation, thus only a fraction of the total amount of the cosmic rays ever reach Earth. When we take a plane and move 30,000 feet over the sea level, the atmosphere is much more thinner and the exposure to cosmic radiation is higher (the shield is thinner). Your typical occasional traveller should have nothing to fear, as the amount of radiation absorbed is minimal. The real question that is being asked by some in the airline industry is in relation to exposure of radiation for frequent fliers and flight crews. Now, we are NOT saying that frequent fliers and flight crews have more of a chance of being diagnosed with cancer or other affects of radiation. What we can say is med-pro.net has many pilots/flight crews that have been using our radiation detection devices to measure the cumulative amounts of radiation.

Men and women working as pilots, flight attendants and other air crew positions spend a lot of time above 10,000 feet, thus the exposure to gamma rays and other ionizing radiation may be higher than usual, in fact it is around 1-10 Ms/year, which means they are half way to the (20 mSv/year)[2] benchmark. The FAA has developed a program called CARI that can be downloaded for free at CARI-6.. According to the website, the CARI-6 calculates the “effective dose of galactic cosmic radiation received by an individual (based on an anthropomorphic phantom) on an aircraft flying the shortest route (a geodesic) between any two airports in the world. The program takes into account changes in altitude and geographic location during the course of a flight, as derived from the flight profile entered by the user”. What the program does not take into consideration is the possibility of solar flares, storms, and radioactive payloads.

Several public studies have been developed to evaluate the health risks of civil aviation crews due to chronic, low dose radiation exposure. Although some results seem to be contradictory, the overall data suggests there may be an increased risk of cancer for this group. If this is the case, there’s still an unanswered question “if there is an increase of cancer, can it be related to radiation exposure?”

Current knowledge about occupational risks of flight crews does not allow us to state that increased radiation exposure is the cause of cancer. There may be other associated risk factors such as exposure to chemicals and a disruption of sleep patterns. We believe further investigation and study is necessary regarding the health of frequent fliers and aircrews. In 1994 the FAA designated pilots and flight attendants as officially being classed as “radiation workers”. As mentioned, flight crews regularly working on high-latitude flights are exposed to more radiation than workers in nuclear power plants. Should airlines require measuring the radiation exposure of their flight crews?

Present regulations do not require personal radiation monitoring for flight crews. However, radiation detection badges (TLD or film badges) might be a useful tool in helping monitor cumulative exposure. We are also advocating that collective longitudinal studies to determine what affects radiation, sleep depravation and other factors that may put flight crews and frequent fliers at risk should be considered.

Next time you need to catch a plane, don’t worry! Your own exposure to radiation coming from the outer space will be only 0,16 mSv for each hour of flight, which means you should absolutely be fine! If you are a frequent flyer or a crew member, perhaps it is time to learn a little bit more about radiation detection and related risks when flying. Email us at sales@med-pro.net if you are considering using a radiation detection badge. To purchase our radiation detection service for only $59.00 a year, go to Order Now.

Use this tool produced by Los Alamos National Laboratory to understand your radiation exposure http://environweb.lanl.gov/newnet/info/dosecalc.aspx

[1] http://www.ansto.gov.au/NuclearFacts/AboutNuclearScience/NaturalBackgroundRadiation/index.htm

[2] http://www.clarku.edu/mtafund/prodlib/clark/round6/Ionizing_Radiation.pdf page 113, title 9.

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