Does Radiation Make Air Travel Dangerous?


Every time you fly in an airplane, you’re exposed to radiation from cosmic rays, which are high energy particles from outer space. Pilots and flight attendants are even classified by the center for disease control as “radiation workers”. But, does that radiation make flying dangerous? Well, no. Even if you’re a frequent flyer, you probably don’t have anything to worry about. See, we’re all exposed to very small amounts of ionizing radiation every day, the kind that has enough energy to knock out electrons from atoms, so it can also break chemical bonds or damage DNA. But, your body’s built to handle things going wrong in your cells by fixing them, or replacing any damaged cells with new ones. All this background radiation comes from radon in the air and uranium and thorium in the soil. You even have some radioactive carbon-14 and potassium-40 inside your body, like all living things on Earth. Plus, you’re still exposed to cosmic rays right here on the ground. When you fly, you’re just exposed to more since there’s less atmosphere above you. Around the world, all this background radiation gives people an average annual dose of 2.5 millisieverts, that’s one of the units used to describe radiation. In the U.S., it’s more like 3 millisieverts per year. The international commission on radiological protection recommends that you keeep your annual dose, beyond all that background stuff, under 1 millisievert. To put that in perspective: you’d have to fly back and forth from New York to London for around 200 hours to reach that number. But, going a little over isn’t necessarily dangerous. Most pilots and flight attendants have recommended dose limits of 20 millisieverts per year or 6 millisieverts per year if you work in the EU. And, the risk of cancer is only thought to increase with doses of around 50 to 100 millisieverts per year, which is way above any exposure from flying home a couple times. Some studies suggest that flight crews have an increased risk for some cancers and reproductive disorders. Like one 2009 study from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, showed that pilots with more flight experience had more chromosomal translocations in their DNA. This is basically when parts of your chromosomes switch places when they shouldn’t, and it’s widely-accepted as a sign of exposure to ionizing radiation and some risk of cancer, especially leukemia and lymphoma. But, there are also studies that suggest flight crews don’t face any increased health risks and just be aware of how much they’re working if they’re pregnant. So, science is still working on this one, but as a passenger, you’ve got nothing to worry about. Thanks for asking and thanks especially to patrons on Patreon who keep these answers coming. If you’d like to submit questions to be answered or get some videos a few days early, just go to patreon.com/scishow. And don’t forget to go to youtube.com/scishow and subscribe. “I mean, you’re holding a device that emits radiation right next to your brain.” “Terrible idea, right? Well, no.”

100 Replies to “Does Radiation Make Air Travel Dangerous?”

  1. Nothing to worry about, unless there are some really gnarly sunspots while you're flying near the Arctic Circle for North America to Europe or Asia.

  2. Bullshit. Did the aerospace industry pay you to say that? Pilots and flight attendants have SIGNIFICANTLY higher chances of developing cataracts because of their job, regardless of getting cancer or not, which is also significantly more likely. Pilots and flight attendants exceed the 200 hours flying that you mentioned in a single month, two months top if we're generous.

    Fly as little as you can. Your body will thank you.

  3. Is it more harmful to watch a screen in the dark or to watch a screen with a lot of annoying reflections on the screen which makes it hard to see?

  4. Could you do a video on EHS (electromagnetic hypersensitivity)? It would probably be a debunking video, but I'm intrigued just by the concept and why it is or is not legit.

  5. However, there are solar events and flying at certain higher altitudes can be dangerous under certain conditions. Solar storms can release radiation bursts, how much of a threat do those pose? And what about pilots who fly stealth aircraft like U-2s at very high altitudes?

  6. It remains a mystery to me how the body can become tougher. I know how it works with increasing bone-density, but apparently the skin can become tougher too. There are some people where I got the impression that even the flesh itself got tough. At least they do unbelievable things without getting injured.

  7. Milliseverts may be one scale but lets not forget the most important scale, The Banana Equivalent Does. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banana_equivalent_dose

  8. Hey guys, just wondering if you could do a video on programable logic controlers (PLC's)? A quick search on youtube reveals a drab selection of information on the topic of a piece of machinery that quit frankly makes the modern world work. Thanks

  9. Eating a banana gives you about as much radiation poisoning as having a nuclear power plant in your city for a year.

  10. Did your girlfriend kicked you out just because she looked into your browsers history ? XD use trivago lol funny ad

  11. Are you that ignorant of the situation, that stupid, or did you get paid to say nothing about what's still spewing into the high atmosphere from Fukushima. If you are ignorant, I think you are smart enough to go do the research, and find for yourself that we are being bathed in massive amounts of radiation throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Read Bob Nichols'; 'Your Radiation This Week'

  12. Follow up question:

    Does the amount of radiation that astronauts get exposed to significantly increase their risk of getting cancer? This is honestly the main deterrent for me for seriously considering being an astronaut

  13. Do aviation workers measure their radiation exposure in millisieverts? Rad Nuc workers measure it in millirems. Why the difference?

  14. Wow the US claims 20 milisievert is safe and the EU only 6?! So basically, they're just guessing, but in Europe they are more cautious?
    This is why TTIP is a bad idea…

  15. Damn, so I won't develop superhero powers just by being a frequent flyer… I suppose I gotta go directly to a nuclear power station and climb inside some huge, glowing reactor then!

  16. How do you sleep at night know that the lies you spread today will negatively affect your children in the future. Take care but please stop. Thank you

  17. 0:15 and 2:02 What do I do with those two pieces of information? "Science is still working on this one" and " Radiation doesn't make flying dangerous".

  18. Not now, the thermosphere is very thin so radiation is coming through at very high amounts, even UVC is reaching ground level now which has never done before! weak magnetosphere as the poles are shifting means our thermosphere is not protecting us as it used to.
    Worse case scenario is the Earth adjusts its rotation axis to the new poles!

  19. Ok but what about the higher over all cancer rate of flight attendants…..????? Unless I’m mistaken…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *