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You often hear people object to being scanned because of the "radiation" argument. I find this always quite amusing from people just being exposed to higher radiation levels during the average airplane flight. I once read a article on the levels of being exposed to radiation in everyday live, but I lost the article. I remember that the exposure in planes was quit substantial. Somewhere in the order of one body scan is equal to 10 minutes of your average transcontinental flight.

So my question is, to how much more radiation are you really exposed while traveling in an airplane, compared to staying on the ground?

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up vote 12 down vote accepted

The amount of radiation you're exposed to on an airplane flight depends on a variety of factors, including the altitude, latitude, and duration of the flight. As an example, a flight from New York to Tokyo is probably about 150 μSV. For comparison, natural background radiation is about 2,000-7,000 μSv per year, a chest x-ray is about 50 μSv, and a medical CT scan is about 10,000 μSv.

Some of the other answers have referred to the BED (banana equivalent dose), but unfortunately the BED is scientifically wrong, because the body maintains a constant amount of potassium, so ingesting more doesn't increase your exposure.

The question asked about the comparison with the radiation exposure from airport scanners. There are two types of full-body scanners, backscatter x-ray and millimeter wave. In the US, the TSA is eliminating all backscatter x-ray scanners by June 2013, so the only type remaining will be millimeter wave scanners. Millimeter wave scanners do not use ionizing radiation, so the radiation exposure is zero. I assume backscatter x-ray machines will continue to be used in airports in at least some other countries; the radiation exposure is about 0.05-0.1 μSv per scan, which is about a thousand times less than exposure during the flight.

There is strong evidence that small doses of radiation do not cause even a small negative health effect in proportion to the dose (which would be the LNT, linear no-threshold hypothesis). In fact, there is quite a bit of evidence that small radiation doses provide a health benefit, an effect called radiation hormesis. This may be because the radiation activates cellular repair mechanisms. However, the dose received from an airplane flight is much too small to provide any positive or negative effect worth considering on an individual basis.

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About the BED. it really does not matter. The idea is having a friendly unit. I think it's very well established that Banans won't harm you. – nsn Mar 25 '13 at 8:20

On a flight from Los Angeles to New York, you'll receive a radiation dose of 40 microsieverts. Equivalent doses:

  • Two (2) chest X-Rays
  • Eight (8) dental X-Rays
  • Eating 400 bananas
  • Sleeping next to someone for 2.2 years

XKCD has an excellent visualization depicting these doses, including the BED!


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+1 for XKCD graph :) – woliveirajr Feb 27 '13 at 17:24
notice that that's 2 chest x-rays OR 8 dental x-rays OR etc. etc. :) – jwenting Mar 20 '13 at 7:25

You can find a very nice article about radiation exposure while flying [here] on airspacemag6.

You can calculate the radiation you're exposed to, during a flight, here ,by giving departure and arrival cities.

Now, for a more practical aproach, Using the well established BED unit :) (Banana Equivalent Dose), it seems that:

radiation danger

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Ace. Do you know how much bananas I eat, when going through a body scan at the airport? – user141 Feb 22 '13 at 16:40
Unfortunatly I can't answer that. I found this information though: – nsn Feb 22 '13 at 16:43
@Andra it's not just the amount of radiation, but also the energy/frequency that matters. The backscatter scanners at airports cause all that dose to be concentrated in the skin, rather than absorbed throughout the body. And that's the main problem people have with them. Whether those fears are well founded I can't tell. – jwenting Mar 20 '13 at 7:27
The trouble with the Banana Equivalent Dose is that it's completely scientifically wrong: – Ben Crowell Mar 25 '13 at 3:34
@BenCrowell Thanks Ben. But that's not the point anyway. The idea is having a more "friendly unit". – nsn Mar 25 '13 at 8:19

As a physicist who worked for many years on the backscatter imagers, I can assure you the dose to the skin is very low. It is required that there be at least 1mm of aluminum filtration equivalent in the beam to remove the very low energy x-rays that would increase dose to the skin.

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