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Ionising radiation

Environmental Radioactivity - Medicine - Occupational Radiation Protection - Nuclear Hazards Defence

Ionisierende Strahlung

Radiation exposure of airline passengers

  • The extent of additional radiation exposure on a flight depends primarily on duration, altitude, route of the flight and the solar activity.
  • A flight from Frankfurt to New York and back results in an average effective dose of about 100 µSv.
  • For people who fly only occasionally, as most holiday travellers do, the additional radiation exposure from flying is very low and has no adverse health effects; this applies also to pregnant women and infants.

Many people travel for business or pleasure reasons to their distant destinations by plane. These aircraft often fly at altitudes and latitudes, where substantially more radiation affects men than on the Earth’s surface. The energies of this high altitude radiation are so high that they can not be shielded.

What causes this radiation exposure?

The Earth is constantly exposed to a stream of high-energetic atomic particles that come from the depths of the cosmos. By colliding with the components of the atmosphere, new atomic particles of high energies are created. The entity of all these particles is the so-called high altitude radiation.

With proximity to the Earth’s surface, the intensity of this radiation decreases because of the increasing density of the atmosphere. Protection against cosmic radiation comes also from the so-called "solar wind" that deflects some of the cosmic rays from our solar system. This solar activity changes more or less regularly in a cycle of about eleven years. The higher the solar activity, the lower is the cosmic radiation level and vice versa. The magnetic field of the Earth also deflects cosmic rays from the Earth's atmosphere. This shielding is strongest at the equator, in the northern and southern regions of the geomagnetic poles however, it is weakest.

The extent of additional radiation exposure on a flight depends primarily on duration, altitude, route of the flight and the solar activity.

Flight exposure in comparison with natural exposure

Apart from cosmic radiation men are exposed at the Earth’s surface to radiation from natural radioactive substances that are part of the Earth’s crust. In Germany, the total effective dose from this natural radiation exposure is about 2.100 microsievert (µSv) per year. Depending on the location the actual value varies between about 1.000 and 10.000 µSv per year.

A flight from Frankfurt to New York and back results in an average effective dose of about 100 µSv. By such a transatlantic journey, the average annual radiation exposure increases therefore by about five percent.

Radiation burden from flying?

For people who fly only occasionally, as most holiday travellers do, the additional radiation exposure from flying is very low and has no adverse health effects; this applies also to pregnant women and infants.

Effective dose from cosmic rays on selected routes
DestinationDose range* [µSv]
Frankfurt - Las Palmas de Gran Canaria10 - 18
Frankfurt - Johannesburg18 - 30
Frankfurt - New York32 - 75
Frankfurt - Rio de Janeiro 17 - 28
Frankfurt - Rome 3 - 6
Frankfurt - San Francisco45 - 110
Frankfurt - Santo Domingo (Dom. Rep.)30 - 65
Frankfurt - Singapore 28 - 50
Frankfurt - Tokyo45 - 110

* The variation is mainly due to the effects of cruising altitudes and solar cycle.

Pilots, flight attendants or "frequent business flyers", in particular when they often fly long distances on northern polar routes, can receive radiation doses that are comparable to radiation doses in occupations in which ionizing radiation is used or where radioactive sources are handled. Since August 2003 the Radiation Protection Ordinance provides therefore for air craft personnel the same legal radiation monitoring, as for all other occupationally radiation exposed persons. This monitoring is conducted by the Federal Office for Radiation Protection, in cooperation with the Federal Office for Civil Aviation.

State of 2017.05.06

© Bundesamt für Strahlenschutz