Radiation: Fukushima vs. flying

Jurvetson just posted this interesting diagram and account on his Flickr page.

“My friend, Mike Kirk, is an executive at a Silicon Valley tech firm, and he recently returned from a business trip to Japan. One of his destinations was 50 miles from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. As a precaution, a colleague gave him a Geiger Counter so he could make sure it wasn’t getting dangerous as he approached the plant.”

So, obviously the radiation danger from Fukushima is quite low as compared to flying. And while the risk from flying is still quite low for the average person, it does add up to dangerous levels. The following is quoted from the paper COSMIC AND SOLAR RADIATION: FACTS FOR FLIGHT ATTENDANTS by the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA.

  • “The FAA estimates that for a crewmember who flies
    900 hours a year for 30 years on flights between the US and Europe, the excess risk of radiation-induced fatal cancer can be as high as 1%.
  • A study done in California showed that flight attendants were 30% more likely to develop breast cancer.
  • The danger is magnified for fetuses: Pregnant women who fly more than seven roundtrip international flights (e.g., LGAT to KJFK, 9.4 hours, maximum altitude 41,000 feet) will approach the fetal limit of 1mSv and will need to “modify their work schedules.” This calculation assumes normal solar activity. Flying during solar particle events (SPE) [which are said to increase radiation levels by 1,000%] will reduce this recommended maximum number of flights dramatically.

The basic summary of radiation levels while flying is:

1. TIME SPENT IN FLIGHT: Exposure is cumulative so the more time that you spend in-flight, the higher your potential dose.

2. LATITUDE: Exposure is more intense at higher latitudes; for example, at the same altitude, radiation levels at the poles are about twice those at the equator. This is especially important for cabin crew, pilots, and passengers on the polar routes introduced by two airlines in the spring of 2001.

3. ALTITUDE: Exposure is more intense at higher altitudes because the layer of protective atmosphere above you is thinner.

4. SOLAR ACTIVITY: Although the frequency of flares from our sun peaks every 11 years or so, it isn’t the solar flares themselves that are of health concern to passengers and crew, but rather the emissions of charged particles called solar particle events (SPE, also called “solar radiation storms”). SPE can follow solar flares, but are most frequent during the years leading up to and down from a solar maximum. During a SPE, radiation intensity can increase 1,000 fold compared to background levels. SPE are a health concern to pregnant passengers and crew and can also disrupt communications, especially on polar flights. The most recent peak in the solar cycle was 2000, but there was a rash of very intense SPE in 2001, and as of this writing (May 2006), have been at least eight severe (S3 or higher) such storms since then.

So there really isn’t anything for the average traveler to worry about, but it really is something international female flight attendants should keep in mind. And in my mind, it’s just one more reason we should try to be extra nice to our servers in the air. Not only are they basically waitressing without tips for as much as 17 hours in a row, but they’re also exposing themselves to radiation. I recommend giving them your magazines when you’re finished with them or even bringing them a box of chocolates–especially if you’re flying on Christmas or another holiday!

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One response to “Radiation: Fukushima vs. flying

  1. Fascinating. I had no idea!

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