Cosmic Radiation: the Invisible Threat

Pilots and Cabin crew, but also passengers, are exposed to a natural source of radiation: cosmic radiation. High levels of exposure represent a risk for health (cancer, chromosomal (genetic) damage, cataract, etc.). Experts from the European Cockpit Association are preparing to lobby to improve the protection for crews against excessive exposure to radiation in Europe.

Pilots are more exposed to radiation than the average population. It is usually considered that there is no significant risk for health under 1mSv/year. However, the average annual exposure of pilots to radiation is between 3 and 4.5 mSv. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, this figure could exceed 6 for long-distance flights at high altitudes1. Airline pilots are the largest professional group exposed to radiation. This problem is internationally recognised and the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the International Labour Organisation recommend that air crews should be considered occupationally exposed to cosmic radiation.

The WHO indicates that the radiation exposure at conventional aircraft flight altitudes of 30.000- 40.000 feet is about 200 times higher than on the ground. Indeed, at higher altitudes, the natural protection provided by the atmosphere against cosmic ionising particles is reduced. Other factors contribute as well, e.g. geographical latitude (the exposure to radiation at the poles is twice that at the equator) or solar activity (when the solar activity is high, the exposure is lower); moreover, solar storms can lead to sudden increases in radiation levels (up to 10mSv) in one single flight.

In the European Union, a Directive2 establishes uniform safety standards to protect the health of workers and the general public against the dangers of ionising radiation. This directive has an article specifically dedicated to air crew. However, this article has not been applied uniformly and, according to our experts, does not provide sufficient nor adequate protection for crews'

The Directive is under review by the European Commission. Our experts will shortly send recommendations to update the requirements of the law according to international guidelines, improve the way crews' exposure to radiation is measured and their health is monitored. Furthermore, ECA will propose ways to minimise the exposure and reduce the effects of cosmic radiation.

1"Radiation, People and the Environment", IAEA, Austria, February 2004

2Council Directive 96/29/Euratom of 13 May 1996 laying down basic safety standards for the protection of the health of workers and the general public against the dangers arising from ionizing radiation, Official Journal L 159 , 29/06/1996 P. 0001 - 0114