Flight Attendant Radiation
For women who are pregnant there are lots of health related precautions to consider. One of them is radiation exposure, but did you know that flying at high altitudes can expose us to cosmic radiation, which comes from the sun and other stars? It's important to point out that most passengers, including pregnant women, don't have to worry because their exposure is typically limited. But for airline crewmembers who fly a great deal and want to get pregnant, cosmic radiation may be a health risk to their pregnancy.
For more than ten years Kathryn Daniel worked as a flight attendant. Now she is taking a break from that career to spend time at home in Dover, New Hampshire with her baby son Jared. Kathryn was closely monitored during her pregnancy. She wanted to make sure the physical demands of being a flight attendant wouldn't harm her baby.
Kathryn Daniel, Fight Attendant
I didn't want to work during my last trimester, just because, you get so much bigger. It's very tight on these airplanes and you hit things anyway. I can't walk down the aisles without my hips hitting people. Think what my belly is going to do? I thought more about that kind of convenience of fitting on the airplane more than anything else.
For most pregnant women flying is almost always safe. Women in the later stages of pregnancy should check with their airline carrier about travel rules. Most airlines allow pregnant women to fly until about 36 weeks of pregnancy. Airline industry policy requires flight attendants to have a physician sign off on their health status during pregnancy. Kathryn's OB-GYN Mark Chag is with Harbor Women's Health in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
Mark Chag, M.D. Obstetrics & Gynecology
Generally the 20 to 26 week range at that point there is a form that you fill out or a letter that you advise that they stop work and they are allowed to do that for the duration of the pregnancy. I've never seen an airline require or even ask a woman to work in the third trimester at all. It's a physical job and they don't require women to do that.
But it's not just the physical demands of the job. Airline travel exposes everyone to cosmic radiation, but it's more intense on the crew due because of the exposure over multiple flights. So for a pregnant flight attendant, the risk to her and her baby's health needs to be discussed with her doctor.
Kathryn Daniel, Flight Attendant
I might have known kind of intellectually that it existed. But as far knowing any breadth of information about it, no. I think that flight attendants on a whole do put any fears, because there are so many now days, somewhere else somewhere that they don't have to really think about it.
Rob Barish is a Ph. D at the Lenox Hill Heart and Vascular Institute in New York City. Doctor Barish says the level of radiation increases with the altitude of the plane.
Rob Barish, Ph.D Lenox Hill Heart & Vascular Institute
At approximately 35 thousand feet or so, you're getting the equivalent of about one chest x-ray every three hours on an airplane.
In Europe if you're a flight attendant and you declare yourself to be pregnant they take you out of the air. Because that one millasievert limit which represents the non-occupational dose and therefore the dose that a fetus could be easily reached in a very short amount of flying time. And so, in order to protect the pregnant flight attendant the European carriers basically ground them but continue to pay them.
In 2000, European air carriers adopted this policy in an effort to protect pregnant crewmembers.
Patricia Friend, the president of the flight attendants union here in the U.S., believes the policy should be proof that cosmic radiation is an issue to be taken seriously.
Patricia Friend, President Association of Flight Attendants
The guidelines are similar, but the problem is there isn't a definitive policy in this country to both inform flight attendants of the potential health risks or to give them the option that our European sisters and brothers have which is to adjust their schedule if necessary in order to minimize those health risks. That does not exist in this country.
Dinkar Mokadam is an occupational safety and health specialist with the flight attendants union. He has headed up the effort to educate flight attendants about cosmic radiation with the latest publications on its website.
Dinkar Mokadam, OHSA Specialist, Association of Flight Attendants
Exposure is always cumulative. So the more time you spend in the air the more dose you are going to get.
There is the potential for cancer, there is a potential for genetic mutations of the fetus and for structural abnormalities that come about after birth because of these mutations.
Kathryn is relieved that she didn't continue to fly past the 5th month of her pregnancy. Playing with her healthy and happy baby boy reminds her that the decision was worth it.
Kathryn Daniel, Flight Attendant
Even though I had an ok pregnancy and you know he's healthy and happy and developing just fine. There's some things you just don't ever know until the time that it presents itself.
Kathryn plans on continuing to get the word out about cosmic radiation. Especially when it comes to her fellow flight attendants. She believes the health concerns are important to everyone whether they plan on having a family or not.
Kathryn Daniel, Flight Attendant
From my own point of view I plan on getting that information out as much as I can. And then hopefully every person that I talk to can get someone else to know about it a little bit more so that we kind of educate ourselves because that's the only way its really going to happen.
Rob Barish agrees. He says it's an occupational as well as a basic health right to be informed about risks in the work environment.
I think that the most important thing that needs to be done is to take an advisory, by the FAA, an advisory on crewmember education on radiation exposure. Which said crewmembers should be told about this. They should be told about the pregnancy risks they should be told about the risks to themselves as adults from radiation exposure. And convert that to a regulation in which they are required to be told.
HOST ON CAMERA TAG
We want to emphasize again that for the occasional airline traveler the health risk due to cosmic radiation is minimal. But women, who need to take an airline flight during the last trimester of their pregnancy, should consult with their physician before travel plans are made.
Pregnant women may want to book an aisle seat, so that they can get up and walk around every hour or so.
Try to get a seat in the front of the plane where the ride is often smoother.
Metal detectors at airport security give off very low levels radiation but not nearly enough to harm a pregnant woman or her baby.