Does Air Travel Expose You to Much Radiation?

It seems that the friendly skies aren’t all that friendly, especially for the flight crews providing service to millions of passengers every day.

At higher altitudes, people are exposed to increased levels of cosmic ionizing radiation.
At higher altitudes, people are exposed to increased levels of cosmic ionizing radiation.

The danger mainly comes from cosmic ionizing radiation -- the atomic particles that are more prevalent at higher altitudes. These bombarding rays can damage tissue and DNA, potentially leading to health problems such as cancer and reproductive issues.

Due to their increased exposure, airline crewmembers are classified by the CDC as “radiation workers,” similar to individuals who work at nuclear power plants. According to Irina Mordukhovich of Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, cabin crews receive the highest yearly dose of cosmic ionizing radiation of all U.S. workers.

Along with higher doses of cosmic radiation, flight crews are also exposed to UV radiation, as well as radiation from gamma rays and X-rays caused by solar flares. Additionally, there are other known carcinogens related to air travel, including chemical flame retardants and engine leakages. According to the Harvard Flight Attendant Study in 2018, men and women working in U.S. cabin crews have higher rates of many cancers, including breast cancer, cervical cancer, skin cancer, thyroid cancer, and uterine cancer, as well as cancers of the gastrointestinal system (colon, stomach, esophagus, liver and pancreatic cancers).

Flying the unfriendly skies:

  • The Harvard Flight Attendant Study found that rates of breast cancer were 50 percent higher among female flight attendants, compared to the general population. Melanoma and nonmelanoma skin cancer rates are also significantly higher among both male and female flight attendants.

  • Scientists estimate that crews are exposed to around 3 millisieverts (mSv) of radiation every year. In comparison, an astronaut who spends 10 days in space receives 4.3 mSv.

  • In order to protect astronauts from cosmic ionizing radiation, NASA places limits on their yearly radiation exposure. But there are no limits for airline crews in the United States.

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