9 October 2000

'Sun ray' study will assess aircraft risk

By Kate Watson-Smyth

The risk to airline passengers and crew from cosmic radiation is to be measured in a study that will investigate the harmful rays from the sun and their possible effects upon those aboard aircraft.

A long-haul flight at 35,000ft is said to result in radiation exposure equivalent to a chest X-ray and, while passengers are not thought to be at great risk, frequent exposure to this radiation, which is unfiltered by the atmosphere at high altitudes, is known to cause cancer.

The study, launched yesterday, will monitor cabin crew and frequent flyers, who are thought to be most at risk, and will involve fitting sophisticated measuring equipment to a number of aircraft.

Since last May, because of a safety directive from the European Union, all airline pilots and cabin crew on European flights must be regularly tested for overdoses of radiation.Most aviation experts believe the radiation present in an aircraft during flight falls within natural background radiation levels, although airlines already consider the potential risks to crew members. Legislation demands that radiation doses be kept "as low as achievable" for pregnant crew, and it is already common for them to be assigned ground duties.

Robin Hunter, the medical director of the Civil Aviation Authority, said: "We need a better understanding of the factors that may cause the radiation dose rates in aircraft to vary. In particular we need to determine the influence of solar activity. For frequent flyers and air crew, the accumulated dose may be significant."

The monitoring equipment will be fitted to Virgin planes, whose founder, Sir Richard Branson, said yesterday: "All aircraft, but in particular future generations of aircraft, may be affected by this, and it is surprising how little is known."