What is the radiation exposure during a transatlantic flight?
I decided to see for myself, taking the Geiger counter with me that I had gotten for a trip to Chernobyl.
I was a bit surreptitious in using the Geiger counter because I did not want to freak out the person sitting next to me. I am not sure what it takes to get tased up there by an air marshal, or if they would get freaked out by a Geiger counter. Who knows. I did not want to find out.
For most of the time the exposure was between 3,2 and 2,5 microsievert per hour.
This value is more or less 30 times the level of exposure here at my desk in Berlin (0,09 microsieverts per hour as I write). The mean exposure in Germany per year is around 2 millisieverts per year (ranging from 1 to 10 millisieverts depending on where you live), mathematically averaging to around 0,2 microsieverts per hour.
This is comparable to when you stand at the monument at the parking lot in front of the old sarkophagus in Chernobyl. That was a surprise to me. I had a measurement of 3,9 microsieverts when I walked a bit beyond the sculpture at Chernobyl. To find places on the ground that had that exposure level you had to search around in Pripyat, sometimes the moss or grass or the manholes would show a level above 3 microsieverts.
This radiation level is far below the threshold still considered safe. You would have to spend many weeks or even months per year in this kind of environment to even get close to the recommended maximum exposure levels. It does, however, not tell us anything about the severity of the Chernobyl disaster itself. It can just help to put everyday exposusure to radiation today in context.
The cool thing is that you can actually see the very slow and long descent of your plane by simply checking your Geiger counter. The radiation decreases with the altitude long before you could even tell the difference by looking out of the window.
So next time you fly, why don’t you take your own Geiger counter with you? They also got them to plug into your phone for data logging. I would be interested to hear from you. It supposedly makes a big difference if you go via the polar flight path, the radiation is a bit higher close to the poles, so they say.