Study: Airline Passengers May Be Exposed to Harmful Levels of Radiation From Storms

There is an interesting science story out this week that could raise legal issues as to risk of radiation for airline passengers. A new study at the Florida Institute of Technology, University of California, Santa Cruz and the University of Florida found that passengers could be exposed to a radiation dose equal to that from 400 chest X-rays if their airplane is near the start of a lightning discharge or related phenomena known as a terrestrial gamma ray flash.

These bursts of radiation only extend a few hundred feet in the clouds, but they are high in radiation. Airliners are known to routinely pass through lightening storms and a plane is actually struck by lightning once or twice a year.

One of the sources for radiation that was studied was “terrestrial gamma-ray flashes,” or TGFs. TGFs originate within thunderstorms at the same altitudes used by jet airliners. The range for high radiation levels can extend to the size of a football field around the discharges. They can reach 10 rem — considered the maximum safe radiation exposure over a person’s lifetime (equal to 400 chest X-rays, three CAT scans or 7,500 hours of flight time in normal conditions).

If confirmed in later studies, this could present some interesting problems for personal liability in defining the injury. Exposure does not mean certain cancer, but it is clearly raising the chances for such harm.

For the full story, click here.

12 thoughts on “Study: Airline Passengers May Be Exposed to Harmful Levels of Radiation From Storms”

  1. Most airline pilots are retired pilots from the military. They have extended time behind the controls and have extended time operating it during stormy conditions.

  2. Oh my. You can now enjoy your flight and glow at the same time. I wonder if they will change the red eye flights.

  3. Who hasn’t had 400 chest X-rays?

    Seriously, this is surprising. I predict the airlines and their lobbyists will quash this one right away. No gamma ray ever made a plane crash, right?

    And we’ll be wasting time on message boards wrestling with brainwashed skeptics.

  4. Tom,

    I’m guessing that’s going to be the topic of one of those “future studies.” Pretty easily done too. Compare the incidence of certain health problems among the crew to that of the general populace. I think that hard part would be controlling for other environmental factors (long hours, odd sleep cycles, etc).

  5. Never mind the effects on passengers, if this radiation could cause illness, it should show up in the flight crews, who spend hours every workday in the air.

  6. Well, now them Mile High Club paramoures can prove that you *can* get struck by lightening twice in the same place as long as you are airborne…Fy the Friendly Skys—United…

  7. JT,

    You fell for the airlines’ latest marketing ploy! This will be counted as a full body scan to detect diseases, (w/o the detection results) and each passenger will pay $250.00 for the “service”. You will need a second “on the ground” scan, provided for $300.00 at airline clinics, so the doctors may compare each scan and give you your, more accurate results. The air scan, you see, while helpful, is not definitive unless correlated with the “on the ground scan”.

    So there you have it: Lemons into lemonade just like water into wine.

  8. Considering the rarity of this type of event, I would only be concerned about the effects on a fetus or young child.

    If this becomes a major concern, it might be wise to restrict air travel for pregnant women and young children.

    Monitoring: I would recommend using three thermoluminescent dosimeters (TLD) for each leg of a flight. The TLD, and the device for reading them would not be cost prohibitive, and it doesn’t require much training to operate the reader.

    The reason for three TLDs is redundancy. Three readings would prevent alarm from an erroneous indication (likely caused by the reader not properly clearing the TLD prior to use).

    I’m not too worried. I have never heard of a pilot or any member of a flight crew suffering from radiation sickness, and they would be the group most likely to experience it.

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