FlyerTalk members have long been concerned with being exposed to radiation during their travels — whether it is by being screened at an airport security checkpoint, or simply by flying as a passenger aboard a commercial aircraft — as they do not want to increase their chances of being diagnosed with such diseases as cancer.
The levels of radiation and their effect on your safety have also been long debated. For example, FlyerTalk member UAConcorde learned from a lecture that frequent fliers who travel between 100,000 miles and 450,ooo miles per year are subject to radiation exposure equivalent to a scan of your pelvis, or 60 X-ray images of your chest; and FlyerTalk member spideysense was advised by both a doctor and a technician “that the radiation from an X-ray is very low and that flying in a plane exposes you to much more radiation.”
There are also conflicting reports about the radiation exposure levels and safety of the equipment used to scan passengers who are being screened daily at airport security checkpoints: for example, one report claims that there is no significant threat of radiation from being scanned and that the equipment is operating safely; while another report claims that no levels of radiation can be considered safe, no matter how low is the purported amount.
Now both The Washington Post and NBC News have reported on a phenomenon of brief but powerful terrestrial gamma-ray flash known as dark lightning — originating naturally from thunderstorms similarly to lightning but is virtually invisible due to emitting an insignificant and extremely brief glow of bluish-purple light, hence its name — which generates electrons and positrons and propels them towards space, possibly blasting airline passengers with large doses of gamma rays on a regular basis.
Because there is supposedly not enough information and understanding pertaining to the cause of dark lightning, attempts to discover whether or not it poses a radiation hazard to airline passengers have been limited — although the flashes do not seem to reach what are considered “truly dangerous levels.”
Scientists calculate that the amount of radiation near the tops of cumulonimbus clouds which produce thunderstorms is roughly equivalent to “ten chest X-rays, or about the same dose people receive from natural background sources of radiation over the course of a year.” However, the radiation is approximately ten times greater in the middle of a thunderstorm — which airline pilots attempt to avoid as much as possible — “comparable to some of the largest doses received during medical procedures and roughly equal to a full-body computed tomography scan.”
Because the doses of radiation supposedly never reach “truly dangerous levels”, there is generally no need to worry — although it is something about which to keep in mind until more information is discovered, as dark lightning seems to be more of a topic of interest for those who enjoy science rather that perceive it as a health threat. However, I would be curious as to whether or not a study exists on comparing rates of cancer between those people who fly frequently and those who do not.
I would think that if frequent fliers do have a higher risk of contracting cancer than their non-traveling brethren, the difference would be insignificant at best. Regardless, I think I will continue to take my chances of traveling via airplane all over this wonderful planet of ours and visiting as many places as possible before I die — and enjoy the added bonus of watching that mesmerizing light show created by thunderstorms below the aircraft during a flight, especially at night — even if that means that I might be shortening the span of my life by a few days due to my exposure to radiation…