In May, the European Union began regulating its aviation industry to protect flight crews from cosmic radiation-the higher we fly above the earth's surface, the higher the exposure. The EU directive came just in time for what is considered a peak phase in solar flare activity (storms on the sun's surface), which can increase cosmic radiation one hundredfold.
Since research indicates that ionizing radiation from the sun can cause birth defects, the new law requires airlines to notify employees of risks and limit the exposure of pregnant crew members. British Airways now grounds employees once they declare pregnancy.
In the U.S., meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has documented cosmic radiation risks since 1990, but doesn't require airlines to inform their crews or passengers. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, flight crew members receive higher radiation doses than 95 percent of other "exposed" workers, including most nuclear power plant technicians. Many, however, are unaware of the risks.
Robert Barish, a medical physicist and author of The Invisible Passenger: Radiation Risks for People Who Fly, says, "It makes no sense that those who are in the highest exposed worker group in the U.S. know absolutely nothing about it."
"We are way behind in the U.S.," agrees Candace Kolander, a coordinator at the Association of Flight Attendants, AFL-CIO. "As a flight attendant, I should be able to make an informed decision." According to Barish "one long flight can equal one to two chest x-rays." And one study established a link between flight crews and increased instances of breast cancer. But more research needs to be done, especially on links between in-flight radiation and female reproductive disorders. One such study, involving thousands of women flight attendants, is underway at the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health and should be finished in 2003.
Barish says that frequent fliers should monitor their exposure, and pregnant women should know that flying during a solar flare could increase the risk of birth defects or cause a miscarriage.