Dealing With Air Travel Radiation Exposure

Dealing With Air Travel Radiation Exposure

Doctors appear to be causing tens of thousands of cancers with CT scans and dentists may be causing a few brain tumors with dental X-rays (see my two videos Cancer Risk from CT Scan Radiation and Do Dental X-Rays Cause Brain Tumors?), but what about these new-fangled airport full-body scanners that use so-called backscatter technology to reduce X-ray exposure? A thousand times less radiation exposure than a chest X-ray, though they’re still being phased out. In fact, flight passengers may get 100 times more radiation during the flight every hour, because they’re so high up in the atmosphere and exposed to more cosmic rays. Does that mean a round-trip cross-country flight is almost like getting a chest X-ray? Yes. Anyone who’s seen my speaking schedule knows I’m totally screwed. But what can you do? As is the answer to so many health questions, you can eat healthily.

High dietary antioxidant intakes are associated with decreased DNA damage in airline pilots. Note the word “dietary.” Antioxidant supplements didn’t work. No benefit was found for those taking multivitamins, vitamin C pills, or vitamin E pills. But those getting the most vitamin C from food, B carotene from food, cryptoxanthin from food, and lutein/zeaxanthin from food, saw a significant decrease in DNA damage.

The USDA keeps a nice list of phytonutrient resources. Cryptoxanthin sources listed here (Healthy Pumpkin Pie anyone?). Lutein and zeaxanthin can help us Prevent Glaucoma and See 27 Miles Farther and may present a Dietary Prevention of Age-Related Macular Degeneration. Are these eyesight-saving phytonutrients also found in eggs? You might be surprised. See Egg Industry Blind Spot.

For more on why produce is generally preferable to pills, check out:

These are all phytonutrients, of course, so when they say food, they really mean plants.  And because antioxidants can have synergistic effects, the greatest protection was found when they were eating a combination of phytonutrients, so the greatest protection was found in those eating the citrus and broccoli and nuts and seeds and pumpkins and peppers and dark green leafy vegetables. Though if one had to pick, greens may be the best. All this time I’ve been packing kale chips on planes as a snack just because they’re so lightweight, but now I know their dual purpose.

The researchers conclude that a diet consisting of a variety of fruits and vegetables provides a natural source of these antioxidants as well as other potential protective factors, which may offer the best protection against cumulative DNA damage associated with ionizing radiation exposure. The results are especially relevant to flight crews, astronauts, and frequent flyers.

The same thing was found following Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb survivors for decades. Models based on the available data suggest that the cancer risk in exposed persons may have been knocked down by daily green and yellow vegetable consumption from about 50% increased cancer risk to only about 30% increased risk. Similar results were found for fruit consumption. So fruit and vegetable consumption can diminish, but not eliminate the risks of radiation.

Same thing was found following children after Chernobyl. I profile a study in my video Mediating Radiation Exposure From Airline Travel in which consumption of fresh vegetables and fruits was found to afford protection to the immune systems of exposed children, whereas egg and fish consumption was associated with significantly increased risk of chromosome damage within their bodies. Researchers were unsure whether the damage attributed to fish and eggs was because the eggs and fish carried radioactivity, or whether it was just from the animal fat intake alone.

Why might eggs be harmful even if not radioactive? See Who Says Eggs Aren’t Healthy or Safe? or my other 58 videos on eggs. I cover natural and artificial radioactivity in fish in Fukushima and Radioactivity in Seafood and explore concerns about other pollutants in my 89 fish videos.

For interventional studies where plant foods are actually put to the test, see Reducing Radiation Damage With Ginger And Lemon Balm.

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here and watch my full 2012 – 2014 presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More than an Apple a Day, and From Table to Able.

Image credit: Sergé / Flickr
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  • guest

    Does food absorb radiation up that high in the sky? In-flight eating maybe not good idea? …..maybe prior to flight, post flight eating only?

  • guest

    Seems to me that we should not be bringing any food (kale chips included) onto the plane. Same goes with supplements. If our bodies absorb radiation, why would these “small little bodies” of food. And then we eat ‘this’ food? Does seem prudent. I’m going to indulge in antioxidant rich foods pre-flight and when I land.
    Same might go for water.

  • Pete

    Dr G
    Good idea on Kale Chips … I think? I just looked in Whole Foods and the only Brand I could find, Name starts with a “R”, is about 40 % fat. What brand did you select? where did you buy? Thanks

    • Ravi K

      You should just make your own :-). It’s pretty easy if you have an oven or dehydrator. Tastes better too.

  • Jenna

    I too am concerned about bringing food onto a plane. It does make sense that if the human body absorbs radiation, then the avocado, the baby food, the breast milk,….all the goodies I bring with me up in the air…..all this stuff absorbs the radiation as well. Makes me think the first things I should do when the plane lands is throw it all in the trash.

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  • dar1213

    Has anyone done a study on pilots and stewards/stewardess and their risk of cancer?

  • vardarac

    Fascinating. I’ve taken four flights between the east and west coasts in the past six months, and I’m about to take two more. Will be sure to load up on berries and cacao prior.