Flying with cosmic radiation

Regulations on exposure to cosmic radiation for air passengers and crew exist but the public and air crews generally know very little about the risks, according to a new study published in the International Journal of Sustainable Aviation.

Without the protection of 5 miles of the Earth’s atmosphere above them, air travellers are more exposed to cosmic radiation than those who keep their feet firmly on the ground. There is a problem of accumulation for frequent flyers and air crews. However, despite the fact that regulations on exposure do exist in Europe and elsewhere, the public and air crews themselves are largely unaware of the issue, says Nataša Tomic-Petrovic of the Faculty of Transport and Traffic Engineering, at the University of Belgrade, in Serbia. She has investigated this problem and presented a number of research studies on the risks to flyers associated with exposure to ionizing radiation from solar flares and outer space.

Tomic-Petrovic points out that exposure to ionizing radiation is an important risk factor for the development of cancer as the ionizing effect damages biomolecules. Among those biomolecules is DNA, mutations in which can trigger the uncontrolled cell replication of cancer. Cancer can sometimes result from repeated small doses of radiation of which we are completely unaware in our day to day lives our bodies not having the built in equivalent of a radiation detector. However, the effect of exposure to cosmic radiation on cancer risk is yet to be proven.

“European or worldwide environmental legislation is necessary, but also modern environmental education,” suggests Tomic-Petrovic. “Investments in the knowledge of citizens and informing them of the risks of radiation in aviation, its effects and manner of protection should become the priority for all of us.”
Tomic-Petrovic, N.M. (2016) ‘Radiation in aviation – risks and legal protection’, Int. J. Sustainable Aviation, Vol. 2, No. 2, pp.159–169.

Author: David Bradley

Award-winning, freelance science writer based in Cambridge, England.