The government has introduced new advanced imaging scanners at airports. The American Association of Physicists in Medicine (AAPM) states the dose of radiation from these is extremely low, but all radiation exposure is accumulative.
Medical associations have warned that Americans today are exposed to seven times more radiation, via medical tests, than they were in the 1980s. Harvard Women’s Health Watch states that in 2006, about 62 million CT scans were performed in the U.S., compared with just 3 million in 1980.
Then there’s the flight itself, which also exposes passengers to higher doses of radiation than what they’d get on the ground.
If you’re a frequent flyer, a pregnant woman, or someone who’s gone through a number of medical imaging tests, you’re probably concerned about your overall radiation exposure and how that might affect your risk of cancer, or the risk to your unborn fetus.
We’ve gathered some tips to help you protect yourself from the potential health effects of radiation exposure while flying.
How Does Flying Expose You to More Radiation?
Humans are exposed to both cosmic radiation—that which reaches us from other stars—and solar radiation from the sun on a daily basis. Typically, however, the atmosphere of the Earth protects us, so that our exposure remains low.
When we fly, however, we travel up to higher altitudes, where we have less protection. All radiation exposure is cumulative, which means that the more time spent in-flight, the higher the potential dose. Other factors that affect exposure include:
- Latitude: Exposure is more intense at higher latitudes. Radiation levels at the poles are about twice those at the equator.
- Altitude: Exposure is more intense at higher altitudes, as the layer of protective atmosphere above you is thinner.
- Solar activity: Solar radiation storms can sometimes follow solar flares, and may also occur in the years leading up to and down from them. During a storm, radiation intensity can increase 1,000 fold. As of May 2006, there had been at least 8 severe storms since 2001. A NASA study of typical flights from Chicago to Beijing, Chicago to Stockholm, and London to New York during the Halloween 2003 solar storm found that crew and passengers would have been exposed to about 12 percent of the annual radiation limit recommended by the International Committee on Radiological Protection.
Risk of Cancer Estimated
Human exposure to radiation is measured in millisieverts (mSv). According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the average amount of radiation a person in the U.S. receives from all sources is 6.20 mSv per year. Currently, international standards allow up to 50 mSv per year for those working with and around radioactive material, though the International Commission on Radiological Protection recommends that work-related radiation exposure not exceed 20 mSv per year. Federal law mandates lower doses for pregnant women—5 mSv during the entire gestational period and 0.5 mSv during any month of pregnancy.
Exposure to radiation at airliner altitudes can be hundreds of times higher than on the surface of the earth. According several scientific studies, repeated exposure through airline travel—particularly for airline workers like pilots and flight attendants—could increase risk of some types of cancer. One study conducted by Icelandic researchers, for example, looked at breast cancer cases among 1,500 flight attendants. Those who had been employed as stewardesses since 1966 or before were five times more likely to develop the disease than those who had been employed more recently.
A Swedish study found that cases of malignant melanoma were between two and three times higher than the norm for both male and female cabin crew, while breast cancer cases were 30 percent higher.
Does Anyone Offer Protection?
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has developed no regulations to protect flight professionals from radiation. They have recommended that crewmembers understand exposures and health risks.
Whether you work for the airlines or simply fly frequently, finding ways to protect yourself may be a high priority. Yet actually shielding your body from the radiation itself is impossible so far. Instead, your best bet is to arm your body with the nutrients it needs to prevent any potential DNA damage.
Though we don’t have a lot of studies, some research has shown potential for certain nutrients and herbs to protect against DNA damage. The idea is that radiation wreaks havoc in the body through oxidation or free radical formation, so the key is to bulk up on antioxidants. Here are some options. Please let us know if you have more!
- Shorter flights: If practical, take shorter flights at lower altitudes.
- Avoid medical tests if possible: Always ask your doctor if the test is truly necessary.
- Chlorophyll-rich foods: Seaweed, kelp, blue-green algae, spirulina, and chlorella contain rich minerals, including iodine, that reduce the amount of radiation that may harm body tissues. All of these also contain potent antioxidants to prevent free radical activity.
- Citrus fruits: They contain caffeic acid, which was found in a 2008 study (Journal of Biochemical and Molecular Toxicology) to protect against gamma radiation-induced cellular changes. Vegetables like broccoli, mustard, cabbage, and cauliflower also contain caffeic acid.
- SAMe: This nutrient helps keep up cellular levels of the vital antioxidant glutathione, which helps support enzymes vital for DNA repair. In 2010, a study found that radiation actually suppresses SAMe levels in animals. Increasing the same levels minimized DNA damage.
- ACE vitamins (A, C, and E): High intakes of these vitamins were found to help protect airline pilots from radiation-induced chromosomal damage.
- Zinc: In animal studies, zinc supplements protected from oxidant damage to red blood cells. Zinc also helped protect bone marrow from radiation-induced damage.
- Selenium: It naturally increases levels of antioxidant enzymes in normal cells and stimulates DNA repair.
- Licorice: Extracts of this herb helped block DNA damage and protect lipids from radiation-induced peroxidation.
- Indian gooseberry: Animal studies found that it increased survival time and reduced mortality of mice exposed to whole-body radiation.
- Rosemary: In the lab, extracts protected against DNA damage both before and after radiation exposure. Spanish researchers found that rosemary fights radiation damage to micronuclei.
- Turmeric: This compound from curcumin has cancer-fighting properties and may protect against radiation as well. One animal study found it reduced skin damage from radiation treatments.
- Detoxing herbs: Dandelion, peppermint, and chrysanthemum help detoxify, cleaning toxins and contaminants out of the body.
- Green tea: It’s high in a potent antioxidant called EGCG and can help protect cells from free radicals.
- Polyphenols: Quercetin and resveratrol are natural cell protectors from plants—choose a high-quality supplement prior to flying.
How do you protect yourself from radiation exposure while flying? Please share your ideas.
* * *
Charlotte Huff, “Are We Being Overexposed?” AARP, September 4, 2009, http://www.aarp.org/health/doctors-hospitals/info-09-2009/americans_may_be_getting_too_many_imaging_tests.html.
American Association of Physicists in Medicine (AAPM) (2013, June 27). Radiation from airport scanners: The dose we actually get is low. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 1, 2013, from http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2013/06/130627151642.htm.
“Cosmic and Solar Radiation: Facts for Flight Attendants,” Association of Flight Attendants, April 2010, http://ashsd.afacwa.org/docs/radbroch1.pdf.
Celeste Robb-Nicholson, M.D., “A doctor talks about: Radiation risk from medical imaging,” Harvard Heath Publications, http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletters/Harvard_Womens_Health_Watch/2010/October/radiation-risk-from-medical-imaging.
Ronnell Hansen, M.D., and Elisa Hansen, D.O., “Radiation Exposure and Air Travel: Should We Worry?” Minnesota Medicine, June 2011, http://www.minnesotamedicine.com/tabid/3777/Default.aspx.
Mehta P, Smith-Bindman R. Airport full-body screening: what is the risk? Arch Int Med. Mar 28, 2011. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21444831.
Jenny Hope, “Frequent Fliers Raise Cancer Risk,” Daily Mail, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-200443/Frequent-fliers-raise-cancer-risk.html.
“Reports on Radiation Exposure During Air Travel,” FAA, http://www.faa.gov/data_research/research/med_humanfacs/aeromedical/radiobiology/reports/.
“What Aircrews Should Know About Their Occupational Exposure to Ionizing Radiation,” FAA, http://www.faa.gov/data_research/research/med_humanfacs/oamtechreports/2000s/media/0316.pdf.
“Solar Storms and Radiation Exposure on Commercial Flights,” NASA, http://www.nasa.gov/topics/aeronautics/features/airline-radiation.html.
Robert Klein, “Protect your DNA from CT Scans and X-rays: Research Supports Nutrient Shields Against Ionizing Radiation,” Life Extension Magazine, August 2010, http://www.lef.org/magazine/mag2010/aug2010_Protect-Your-DNA-from-CT-Scans-X-rays_02.htm.
Batra V, Sridhar S, Devasagayam TP. Enhanced one-carbon flux towards DNA methylation: Effect of dietary methyl supplements against gamma-radiation-induced epigenetic modifications. Chem Biol Interact. 2010 Feb 12;183(3):425-33.
Yong LC, Petersen MR, Sigurdson AJ, Sampson LA, Ward EM. High dietary antioxidant intakes are associated with decreased chromosome translocation frequency in airline pilots. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 Nov;90(5):1402-10.
Chen B, Zhou XC. Protective effect of natural dietary antioxidants on space radiation-induced damages. Space Med Med Eng (Beijing). 2003;16 Suppl:514-8.
Dani V, Dhawan DK. Radioprotective role of zinc following single dose radioiodine (131I) exposure to red blood cells of rats. Indian J Med Res. 2005 Oct;122(4):338-42.
Dani V, Dhawan D. Zinc as an antiperoxidative agent following iodine-131 induced changes on the antioxidant system and on the morphology of red blood cells in rats. Hell J Nucl Med. 2006 Jan-Apr;9(1):22-6.
Floersheim GL, Chiodetti N, Bieri A. Differential radioprotection of bone marrow and tumour cells by zinc aspartate. Br J Radiol. 1988 Jun;61(726):501-8.
Qishen P, Guo BJ, Kolman A. Radioprotective effect of extract from Spirulina platensis in mouse bone marrow cells studied by using the micronucleus test. Toxicol Lett. 1989 Aug;48(2):165-9.
Shetty TK, Satav JG, Nair CK. Protection of DNA and microsomal membranes in vitro by Glycyrrhiza glabra L. against gamma irradiation. Phytother Res. 2002 Sep;16(6):576-8.
Singh I, Sharma A, Nunia V, Goyal PK. Radioprotection of Swiss albino mice by Emblica officinalis. Phytother Res. 2005 May;19(5):444-6.
Del Bano MJ, Castillo J, Benavente-Garcia O, et al. Radioprotective-antimutagenic effects of rosemary phenolics against chromosomal damage induced in human lymphocytes by gamma-rays. J Agric Food Chem. 2006 Mar 22;54(6):2064-8.9.
Slamenova D, Kuboskova K, Horvathova E, Robichova S. Rosemary-stimulated reduction of DNA strand breaks and FPG-sensitive sites in mammalian cells treated with H2O2 or visible light-excited Methylene Blue. Cancer Lett. 2002;177(2):145-153.
Common Spice May Protect Skin During Radiation Therapy for Cancer. University of Rochester Medical Center. News Release. October 07, 2002. http://www.urmc.rochester.edu/news/story/index.cfm?id=125.