Flying and Radiation Exposure


In the aftermath of the foiled "underwear bomber" attack on Christmas day, there’s a major push to install whole-body x-ray scanning machines at airport screening areas.

The effort is being led by former Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff, now a paid consultant for a manufacturer of these x-ray machines. He’s calling for their "large-scale deployment." Estimated to cost $3 billion over the next eight years, the Homeland Security department plans to have 1,800 scanners in place at U.S. airports by 2014.

In a Washington Post op-ed on New Year’s Day, Chertoff dismissed objections raised about these devices. "The ‘safety’ concern’" he claimed "is particularly specious, because the technologies expose people to no more radiation than is experienced in daily life."

Not quite. Whole body x-ray scanning machines were developed and first used to detect theft at gold and diamond mines on and inside the bodies of workers in Africa. They are fluoroscopic x-ray machines that provide a real time image of a person’s body using "back-scatter" or "soft" X-rays. They emit much less penetrating energy than machines found in a medical setting, such as CAT scanners.

However, like all machines, if their design, manufacture, calibration, maintenance are defective, then doses to passengers and security staff could be larger than claimed. The recent reporting of dozens of cases of harm to patients from the misuse of CAT scans should serve as a cautionary warning.

Unfortunately, the doses of radiation experienced in every-day life, especially flying long-distances in jet aircraft, pose risks we should also carefully heed.

The earth’s atmosphere is a massive shield protecting life on earth from cosmic radiation. At sea level, this atmospheric radiation shield is roughly equivalent to a wall of water about 33 feet thick. With the rise in altitude, atmospheric shielding decreases and radiation doses increase. At 30,000 feet above sea level, radiation doses increase by 90 times. Solar flares can increase doses by a factor of 100 above that. For this reason, flight crews, are considered by the United Nation’s Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation as radiation workers who, because of exposure to cosmic radiation, are the most highly exposed group in the world.

According to UN data, in 2000, air crews made up about 3% of the radiation workers in the world, but received about 24% of the total collective dose for all exposed workers, which include people employed at uranium mines, nuclear weapons sites, and nuclear power plants. The average estimated annual dose to flight personnel, and frequent international flyers such as professional couriers, is about 2.5 times higher than the combined average for all radiation workers.

Aircrew and frequent long-distance passengers are chronically exposed to more biologically damaging forms of radiation, such as neutrons, than the majority of nuclear workers.

Women who are pregnant have a heightened risk of cancer to their embryos. During the early part of the first trimester, when radiation sensitivity is the highest, some women may not know they are pregnant. This is why European airlines ground pregnant aircrew to prevent overexposure.

Over the past decade, at least 11 studies of military and commercial air crews show significant increased risks of dying from cancers considered to be radiogenic. The aircraft environment includes other potential and multiple risk factors which are not as well understood as radiation, such as electromagnetic fields, changes in body hormones, time zone changes, pesticides, pressure changes, chronic fatigue, and life styles.

Given the economic problems airlines face, this problem is the last thing that they want to surface. But, if crew members and passengers already face largely unreported radiation risks from long-distance flying, we should have the right to know just how whole-body radiation scanning machines are part of this risk.

ROBERT ALVAREZ, an Institute for Policy Studies senior scholar, served as senior policy adviser to the Energy Department’s secretary from 1993 to 1999. www.ips-dc.org

This article originally appeared on The Huffington Post.





November 30, 2015
Henry Giroux
Trump’s Embrace of Totalitarianism is America’s Dirty Little Secret
Omur Sahin Keyif
An Assassination in Turkey: the Killing of Tahir Elci
Robert Fisk
70,000 Kalashnikovs: Cameron’s “Moderate” Rebels
Jamie Davidson
Distortion, Revisionism & the Liberal Media
Norman Pollack
Israel and ISIS: Needed, a Thorough Accounting
Robert Hunziker
The Looming Transnational Battlefield
Ahmed Gaya
Breaking the Climate Mold: Fighting for the Planet and Justice
Matt Peppe
Alan Gross’s Improbable Tales on 60 Minutes
Colin Todhunter
India – Procession of the Dead: Shopping Malls and Shit
Roger Annis
Canada’s New Climate-Denying National Government
Binoy Kampmark
Straining the Republic: France’s State of Emergency
Jack Rasmus
Japan’s 5th Recession in 7 Years
Charles R. Larson
Twofers for Carly Fiorina
John Dear
An Eye for an Eye Makes the Whole World Blind
Weekend Edition
November 27-29, 2015
Andrew Levine
The Real Trouble With Bernie
Gary Leupp
Ben Carson, Joseph in Egypt, and the Attack on Rational Thought
John Whitbeck
Who’s Afraid of ISIS?
Michael Brenner
Europe’s Crisis: Terror, Refugees and Impotence
Ramzy Baroud
Forget ISIS: Humanity is at Stake
Pepe Escobar
Will Chess, Not Battleship, Be the Game of the Future in Eurasia?
Vijay Prashad
Showdown on the Syrian Border
Dave Lindorff
Gen. John Campbell, Commander in Afghanistan and Serial Liar
Colin Todhunter
Class, War and David Cameron
Jean Bricmont
The Ideology of Humanitarian Imperialism
Dan Glazebrook
Deadliest Terror in the World: the West’s Latest Gift to Africa
Mark Hand
Escape From New York: the Emancipation of Activist Cecily McMillan
Karl Grossman
Our Solar Bonanza!
Mats Svensson
Madness in Hebron: Hashem Had No Enemies, Yet Hashem Was Hated
Walter Brasch
Terrorism on American Soil
Louisa Willcox
Grizzly Bears, Dreaming and the Frontier of Wonder
Michael Welton
Yahweh is Not Exactly Politically Correct
Joseph Natoli
A Politics of Stupid and How to Leave It Behind
John Cox
You Should Fear Racism and Xenophobia, Not Syrian Refugees or Muslims
Barrie Gilbert
Sacrificing the Grizzlies of Katmai Park: the Plan to Turn Brooks Camp Into a Theme
Rev. William Alberts
The Church of “Something Else” in “an Ecclesiastical Desert”
Andrew Gavin Marshall
Bank Crimes Pay
Elliot Murphy
Cameron’s Syrian Strategy
Gareth Porter
How Terror in Paris Calls for Revising US Syria Policy
Thomas S. Harrington
Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe and the Death of Ezra Schwartz
Michael Perino
The Arc of Instability
Yves Engler
Justin Trudeau and Canada’s Mining Industry
Tom H. Hastings
ISIS and Changing the Game
Lars Jørgensen
Vive la Résistance
John Halle
A Yale Education as a Tool of Power and Privilege
Norman Pollack
Syrian “Civil War”?: No, A Proxy War of Global Confrontation