Dealing With Air Travel Radiation Exposure

Image Credit: Sergé / Flickr. This image has been modified.

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 – 2015 presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.


Michael Greger M.D., FACLM

Michael Greger, M.D. FACLM, is a physician, New York Times bestselling author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues. Dr. Greger has lectured at the Conference on World Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the International Bird Flu Summit, testified before Congress, appeared on The Dr. Oz Show and The Colbert Report, and was invited as an expert witness in defense of Oprah Winfrey at the infamous "meat defamation" trial.

15 responses to “Dealing with Air Travel Radiation Exposure

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    1. The type of radiation we’re exposed to in an airplane is not radioactive particles that things absorb, it’s electromagnetic waves, aka radiation. So, sure, the food gets hit by radiation, and sure, that radiation can cause “damage” to the cells in the food. But the food isn’t contaminated with radiation, it’s merely been hit by it. Only by hanging around fission reactions can actual radioactive particles be absorbed.

  1. 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.

    1. The type of radiation we’re exposed to in an airplane is not radioactive particles that things absorb, it’s electromagnetic waves, aka radiation. So, sure, the food gets hit by radiation, and sure, that radiation can cause “damage” to the cells in the food. But the food isn’t contaminated with radiation, it’s merely been hit by it. Only by hanging around fission reactions can actual radioactive particles be absorbed

  2. 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

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. I have been informed by a work colleague that male pilots are known to suffer from fertility problems and are more likely to have female children. It was suggested that this is due to the cosmic rays, which may be greater in the flight deck and also to the radar in the nose cone.
    Is there any concrete evidence or are there any statistics supporting this and in the case of male pilots, would taking a few weeks off whilst trying to conceive reverse the situation, or is there some residual damage somehow passed on to the sperm produced at a later date?? Would shields prevent damage and does it only affect male pilots? Does it affect cabin crew of both genders?
    Also, regardless of the reason, would it be more beneficial to eat raw lemon balm than to drink the infused tea?

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