Cosmic Radiation

In the month of March, I traveled between Hong Kong and New York City on the Cathay Pacific non-stop polar flight.  In the month of April, I shall do the same.  Or should I, given this unlinkable South China Morning Post report by Simon Parry?

Attendants on Cathay Pacific's direct flights to New York say they are being limited to around two trips a month on the route because of concerns about their exposure to cosmic radiation.  But no warnings are being given to frequent fliers on the transpolar route because the Civil Aviation Department (CAD) says passengers do not fly enough to be at risk.

Unions representing both pilots and flight attendants believe passengers should be given more information about cosmic radiation, which has been linked to marginal increases in the risk of developing cancer.  "The public ought to be aware that there are possible dangers," said John Findlay, general secretary of the Aircrew Officers Association.  Becky Kwan Siu-wa, head of the Flight Attendants Union, said frequent travellers should be warned.  Fliers are exposed to increased doses of cosmic radiation at altitudes above 8,000 metres over the north and south poles, where the atmosphere is thinner.  

Concern over radiation exposure coincided with the launch of the daily Cathay Pacific transpolar direct flights to New York last July.  Cathay has introduced a stringent radiation monitoring programme, which allows pilots and flight attendants to know how much radiation they have been exposed to and to ensure it never exceeds safe limits.  Data on radiation levels on each flight is processed so pilots or flight attendants can check their exposure. Rosters are tailored to keep them within safe limits.

Ms Kwan said a formula had been worked out which effectively limited flight attendants to about two round trips a month on the polar route.  "If you do two and a half polar flights a month, you are in the danger zone," she said. "At first, when we heard about this, everybody was worried. But we have had regular meetings with the CAD and Cathay and guidance from an aviation doctor."  She said the airline has ensured no flight attendant registered radiation levels above what are regarded as safe limits.  But Ms Kwan said passengers should be given more information about the risks.  "I think the same message should be communicated to the travelling public," she said. "If you are a frequent traveller you shouldn't do more than so many trips on this route."


Cathay has a passenger information section on its website that says the increased cancer risks brought on by exposure to cosmic radiation is minimal and one "most people would probably not consider unacceptable".  A person flying direct from Hong Kong to New York every two weeks for 20 years will increase their risk of death from cancer from 23 per cent to between 23.11 and 23.14 per cent, it says.

Yes, the economists say that, in the long run, we are all dead.  As for me, I cannot be overly concerned because I am sure that there is so many other dangers in the world that I cannot see or hear.  For example, the basement of my New York City apartment building is commercially leased to ... an X-ray laboratory!  Is it safe?  ... Just across the street is a Chinese laundry from which a chemical smell oozes?  Is that safe? ...  Last weekend, our office manager sent a notice to tell people not to come in on Saturday because they will testing the air conditioning system and it might 'smell bad.'  Is it safe? ...  So many questions, so little time.  Does anyone have a portable all-purpose multi-functional environmental hazard detector for sale?