Monday, June 27, 2011

The Dangers of Flying: skin cancer in the air

I got a Facebook question recently from one of my airline pilot friends about the amount of radiation that flight crews receive from being in the stratosphere during airplane flights. 

As a dermatologist I can't tell you the number of skin cancers that I have removed from pilots over the years.  I know I tend to attract pilots as patients given my own helicopter flying, but the number of individual tumors is huge.

And I'm not just talking about the typical basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma -- melanoma is not an infrequent finding. 

So how much radiation do you receive in an airplane? 

Well check out this cool website from the FAA:  Called a Galactic Radiation Calculator, it will give you the amount of radiation your body will be exposed to while in the air.

Most of the information is self explanatory, but you will need the airport identifiers of your destination and arrival airport.  For play you can use New York's JFK (KJFK) and Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (KDFW).  But if you want to use the ones from your own travel information there are resources on Google.

Next you will need the altitude of the flight.  Now the pilot will usually tell you this during the flight briefing near the beginning of the flight (about the time he or she will tell you to keep your seat belt fastened if you're in your seat).  If you want to play, then just use 39000 feet.

One thing that you might not have is the time of your descent... just use 25 minutes as a good guide.

Then you're good to go.  Push calculate and you will get a result in a funky number of microsieverts.  What's that? Well there's a cool table on Wikipedia that will allow you to compare how much radiation you received in comparison with common things like dental x-rays and being exposed to a nuclear reactor.

Cool tool.  But the take home message is that pilots and those that spend a lot of time in airplanes are exposed to higher doses of radiation and therefore have a higher risk of skin cancer.

Wear that sunscreen! (oh...and fasten your seat belt)

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