Whenever we fly as a family, I am the difficult one who opts out of the scanning by those x-ray machines. My family is on board with 95% of the stuff I practice, but this is one instance when they roll their eyes (and I don’t blame them). If you’ve ever opted out yourself, you know that the alternative to being radiated through the “quick and easy” x-ray machine is to get a manual pat-down. This involves trying to track down someone specially trained to perform manual screenings, and what’s more, they need to locate a woman to pat down women, which takes an extra 10 minutes to find that disgruntled individual to do the extra work. It creates a situation involving a lot of unhappy, impatient people, and I am the center of the frustration. Many times, when I’ve opted out, I’ve received a lecture from the security person about how there is “no longer” radiation involved coming out of the machines.
So who is right?
The fact is that when you’re in the air, you are indeed exposed to additional radiation. The radiation comes from space—from earth’s magnetic fields, from solar flares, and from cosmic rays emitted by the stars.
The radiation you get on flights differs from what you get during a medical x-ray or an airport scan.
Space radiation is heavily ionizing, which means it can travel through matter and human tissue easily, knocking out the electrons, which can trigger changes to DNA and cell structure if the dose is high enough. When you’re on the ground the earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field give you plenty of protection from these natural energies, but when you’re in the air, that protection is decreased.
The amount of space radiation you’re exposed in flight depends on factors such as flight time, altitude, and latitude location. The earth’s magnetic shield is most powerful around the equator, so your exposure increases as you fly closer to the north and south poles. Furthermore, the higher the flight and the longer the flight, the more radiation you’ll experience.
According to Jon Barron, author of Lessons from the Miracle Doctors, “Radiation intensity is measured in units called milliSieverts (mSv), which indicate both the amount of radiation and also the damage that dose will likely do to human tissue, since different types of radiation have different effects. Under normal circumstances, the average person gets about 6.2 mSv of total radiation exposure annually—keeping in mind that the recommended limit for the general public is under 1 mSv per year. That radiation is cumulative and can come from contaminated air, food, and water, from radon gas percolating up from the ground below (the largest single contributor), medical tests, proximity to power plants, and from cosmic radiation, since some does reach earth. You get about 2.28 mSv of radiation just from breathing the air around you. Those living at higher altitudes are exposed to about 1.5 mSv more cosmic radiation annually than those near sea level. And if you’re pregnant, experts advise limiting annual exposure to just 5.0 mSv.
On top of the natural radiation you’re subject to, you may get occupational or medical exposure. If you have a chest x-ray, you’ll receive only .1 mSv of radiation, but a spine x-ray gives you 1.5 mSv and a CT scan of your abdomen and pelvis will slam you with 20 mSv, three years’ worth in one dose. And of course, if you work directly with radioactive materials, you’ll get extra, as you will if your profession involves lots of flying. The International Commission on Radiological Protection recommends that airline crew members shouldn’t receive exposure beyond 20 mSv annually, while, as already mentioned, they recommend a limit of under 1 mSv per year for the general public. In fact, airline crew members get the largest annual radiation dose of all professions, at 3.07 mSv a year just from their jobs, on average—more than those working in nuclear power plants or medical x-ray technicians. In the EU, airlines try to limit crew exposure to just 1 mSv annually, and they train and monitor airline workers as if they worked in a nuclear plant, but not so in the US.”
What Are The Effects of Radiation?
Radiation can cause Cancer, Birth Defects, and DNA damage.
A JAMA review of 19 studies involving over 260,000 people found that pilots and air crew members have twice the incidence of melanoma compared to the general population. And, a study in Iceland found that long-term flight attendants developed breast cancer at five times the rate of the population-at-large.
What Does this Mean to You?
For casual travelers, the exposure isn’t too troubling. A typical coast-to-coast, round-trip flight exposes you to about the same amount of radiation you’d get from a chest x-ray—not much. Going from New York to Tokyo one-way will expose you to the equivalent of two chest x-rays.
However, the effects of radiation are cumulative. So the more flights you travel, the greater your exposure, and that can become a factor for frequent flyers. If you fly 100,000 miles a year, you’re getting the equivalent of 20 chest x-rays on top of whatever other exposure you may have. And on top of that, you may accrue extra exposure going through the airport scanner, but it’s a small amount. The scanners subject you to .1 uSv (that’s a millionth of a sievert) for each scan, which is a fraction of the thousandth of a sievert found in an mSv, or about 1000th the amount of a chest x-ray. But on testing, the machines tend to actually emit much more radiation than reported.
If you have been exposed to chest x-rays, or medical radiation, you may want to rethink some of your travel plans, as it is all cumulative.
Experts say that any radiation at all, even one x-ray, can be a health risk as some people are more sensitive to the effects than others, just as some people are more sensitive to dietary factors than others.
The Take Away?
An annual long-haul vacation flight or two probably won’t to do much harm—and the benefits of relaxing on vacation will likely outweigh any radiation effects. But anymore than that is reason to be concerned. And regardless of how little exposure you have relatively speaking, none of us are meant to have any.
This is where you need to be proactive in clearing your system of the radiation, and you can do so effectively with the below supplements.
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