I just read an article that has all my cell nucleuses exploding with dread … literally. The article, in Business Insider: http://www.businessinsider.com/flying-airplane-cancer-radiation-risk-2017-12, for a brief second, made me question the industry I have worked in for decades. And here’s why – – – The title is, and I quote: Flying In Airplanes Exposes People To More Radiation Than Standing Next To A Nuclear Reactor – Here’s Why. Wow! Excuse me while I call my Funeral Director and prepare for the wave of aircraft accidents related to radiation poisoning.
Imagine my concern, entering an airliner and being met by Flight Attendants resembling the cast of The Walking Dead; you know, the zombie-looking cast members; they stand there munching on Brain McMuffins. The First Officer exits the cockpit to do his walk-around, looking remarkably like Tales From The Crypt ‘s Crypt-Keeper, making quips like, “Have a nice FRIGHT! Cackle! Cackle!” And he doesn’t require a flashlight because the airplane glows with a sickly green hue.
I would expect an article of this nature to be found in a medical journal, not a business circular. Is this Radiation story good journalism? Not really. It’s a three-legged stool with a leg missing; a nothing-burger. If you read through the article’s supporting information, the ‘facts’ have no foundation; they’re meant to confuse, like leaving an unsigned nasty-gram on your hard-working neighbor’s car windshield, then hiding behind a bush to see his reaction. Aviation’s social media is full of people who torture the facts to sell themselves as knowledgeable, e.g. applauding an airliner Captain for defying his airline’s De-ice Program to remove dangerous wing ice … with a broom; or using one’s status to say that flying drones near airliners full of passengers poses absolutely no threat to safety. Once it’s out there, it can’t be pulled back; melodrama aimed at an impressionable audience: the traveling public.
In the article there are two types of radiation discussed: Ionized Radiation (IR) and Cosmic Ionized Radiation (CIR). According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), IR is Any electromagnetic or particulate radiation capable of producing ion pairs by interaction with matter. It does this by separating electrons – or ionizing – mating them with free electrons into ionized pairs. IR can be found on the earth’s surface, e.g. radiation treatments. According to the World Health Organization, IR can cause cancer and reproductive problems.
Now, according to the National Institute for Health and Safety (NIOSH), there’s a difference between IR and CIR: Cosmic Ionized Radiation comes from Space, e.g. solar flares. Per its website, NIOSH has no idea whether CIR causes cancer or reproductive problems; there just aren’t any facts to support it. https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/aircrew/cosmicionizingradiation.html.
Does being in an airliner increase your chances of exposure to CIR? Hmm – maybe? Again, nobody knows. Is flying really like standing next to a nuclear reactor? Are we talking about Three Mile Island (1979) or Chernobyl (1986) reactors? I doubt it. Safety modifications of today’s reactors makes that comparison ridiculous. My cousin has worked around nuclear reactors since 1985; I’ve never asked him over during a blackout to … GLOW.
The Sun’s energy is pretty radioactive, right? Think of it this way: are you likelier to get hot standing in the middle of a parking lot paved with black tar as opposed to standing on a white sidewalk? Yes. Does that make the parking lot more dangerous? Maybe, if you’re susceptible to heat stroke. However, on a white sand beach, overexposing one’s bare skin to the sun’s rays can result in skin cancer (melanoma).
We receive protection from solar and cosmic radiation from both the Earth’s magnetic field and the Earth’s atmosphere; they filter out a majority of harmful cosmic radiation before reaching the Troposphere (5 to 9 miles above the ground). Are airliner passengers, flying at an altitude of 40,000 feet (7.5 miles), exposed to more cosmic radiation than someone walking in a grass field? The truth is, NIOSH … does … not … know; the United States has no dose limits for aircraft.
But consider: The Mount Washington Observatory in New Hampshire sits at 6288 feet above sea level (ASL) while the Maui Space Surveillance System at the summit of Maui’s Haleakalā Crater sits at 10,000 feet ASL. They have both been occupied for decades, yet no one has reported suffering from Cosmic Ionized Radiation exposure.
How dangerous would exposure be to, say, the International Space Station (ISS)? The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) website says the ISS cruises at 220 miles (1,161,600 feet) above the Earth in the Thermosphere. This is well above the protective bubble of Earth’s atmosphere, putting it in direct line with a constant barrage of solar activity. How high are the aurora borealis, the phenomenon that occurs when solar radiation bounces off the Earth’s magnetic field? Between 50 and 400 miles above the Earth’s surface. The ISS is smack dab in the middle of this altitude. At 40,000 feet, the average airline passenger faces more radiation damage from their cell phones and video games, that is, assuming you don’t turn it off when the flight attendant says to, but that’s another article.
But, Stephen, how do you know this? Good question. Having worked in the air cargo industry for twenty years, I’m very familiar with Dosimeters. What is a Dosimeter? In the movie Diamonds Are Forever, the character, Klaus Hergersheimer gives James Bond a radiation badge in the Master Villain’s secret Nevada base; that badge monitored radiation exposure. The same principle is applied to a Dosimeter: a ‘device used to measure an absorbed dose of ionizing radiation’. According to what cargo is carried onboard a flight, e.g. Radioactive Three-bar, a dosimeter is required to be worn by flight crews and cargo handlers to monitor their exposure to harmful IR. I, as a mechanic, would wear a Dosimeter when working flight controls that utilized depleted uranium as a counter-weight.
In thirty-six years, I’ve never met a flight crew whose Dosimeter was corrupted by radiation, or whose skin resembled Extra Crispy Kentucky Fried Chicken. The truth is that any flights conducted inside an airliner’s normal cruise altitudes suffer absolutely no harmful radiation exposure dangers.
To cry ‘Wolf’ by writing articles aimed at scaring the flying public into worrying about non-existent threats is irresponsible. Professionals in the aviation industry work hard every day to improve safety, assuring the secure movement of people and freight across the country. The integrity of their efforts do not need any unsupportable bad press to damage their safety records.
If one wishes to check IR contamination experienced during a particular flight, the Federal Aviation Administration provides a chart for determining exposure called the Galactic Radiation Received In Flight chart at: http://jag.cami.jccbi.gov/cariprofile.asp
If you would like to check radiation exposure challenges for astronauts, NASA provides a High School level guide at: https://www.nasa.gov/pdf/284275main_Radiation_HS_Mod3.pdf