Answer to Question #9944 Submitted to "Ask the Experts"

Category: Environmental and Background Radiation — Airplanes

The following question was answered by an expert in the appropriate field:

Q

Has there been any research on the difference in the radiation exposure received when flying in different cabins (economy, business, or first class) of an aircraft? I love to travel in the first-class cabin, but I seem to get a headache on the Boeing 747 when sitting there. I have noticed, as well, that when traveling in the first-class cabin, I am underneath the pilots and all of their equipment. Could my headaches be caused by radiation?
 

A

The radiation we are exposed to when we fly is uniform throughout the airplane; that is, the passengers in all cabins, as well as the crew, receive the same radiation dose. This dose is from cosmic radiation, produced when energetic particles from all around our galaxy and to a lesser extent, from our own sun, interact with the earth’s atmosphere. The resulting x rays, neutrons, protons, electrons, muons, and pions have enough energy to penetrate the walls of the aircraft from all directions.

The radiation dose we receive as passengers on a commercial airplane is very low, about 3 to 5 microsieverts per hour (µSv h-1); see the Health Physics Society’s “frequently asked question” on dose from airline travel at http://hps.org/publicinformation/ate/faqs/commercialflights.html. The recommended maximum for members of the public exposed to ionizing radiation is 1,000 µSv, so you would have to fly for 200 hours or more in a year to reach this limit. (Note that this is just a recommended limit, not a safety limit; you can exceed this limit without any effect on your health.) You can calculate the dose you might receive from air travel using the Federal Aviation Administration’s online calculator at http://jag.cami.jccbi.gov/cariprofile.asp.

So your headaches are not a response to radiation, whether cosmic radiation from space or radiofrequency radiation from the airplane’s instruments. A quick Internet search shows that there is a condition totally unrelated to radiation exposure called “airplane headache.” If you are concerned about this, you should check with your physician.

Linnea Wahl, CHP

Ask the Experts is posting answers using only SI (the International System of Units) in accordance with international practice. To convert these to traditional units we have prepared a conversion table. You can also view a diagram to help put the radiation information presented in this question and answer in perspective. Explanations of radiation terms can be found here.
Answer posted on 11 November 2011. The information posted on this web page is intended as general reference information only. Specific facts and circumstances may affect the applicability of concepts, materials, and information described herein. The information provided is not a substitute for professional advice and should not be relied upon in the absence of such professional advice. To the best of our knowledge, answers are correct at the time they are posted. Be advised that over time, requirements could change, new data could be made available, and Internet links could change, affecting the correctness of the answers. Answers are the professional opinions of the expert responding to each question; they do not necessarily represent the position of the Health Physics Society.