Airline frequent fliers are at greater risk of developing long term radiation poisoning from “solar space storms” or flare activity from the Sun, a new study warns.
Researchers found passengers faced the “hazard” of space radiation, which created unhealthy levels of exposure while flying at “typical cruise altitudes” of 40,000 feet.
Experts warned passengers could be subjected to increasing risk to cancer due to such radiation levels.
Nasa scientists believe the earth is facing danger from a once-in-a-century “solar flare”, a disturbance on the Sun's surface that could cause geomagnetic storms on this planet.
One in the mid-19th century blocked the nascent telegraph system and many scientists believe another is overdue.
Researchers from the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Oxon, warned that the electrical grid, computers, telephones, transportation, water supply and food production faced “huge disturbances” from space storms.
Their vulnerability is also blamed on humans’ “creeping dependency” on modern technology. For example there are about 4.9 billion mobile phone “connections” every month.
Scientists found aircrew were “the major occupation group” most exposed to the Sun’s radiation with passengers also at risk from the phenomenon.
Because the sun’s radiation levels had been reasonably low for the past century, its strengthening power in the coming few years would create new health problems.
“Space radiation is a hazard not only to the operation of modern aircraft but also to the health of aircrew and passengers,” said the study, titled Space weather and its impact on Earth – implications for business.
“Radiation from space can reach the Earth’s atmosphere and create extra radiation exposure for people travelling on aircraft at typical cruise altitudes (40,000 feet).
“The radiation risk to passengers is usually much less than that for aircrew since most passenger spend less time in the air (and) the radiation doses accumulate with time in flight, especially at cruise altitudes.”
The study, published by Lloyds of London, the insurance market, added: “However, frequent fliers whose time in the air approaches that of aircrew are equally at risk. There is, as yet, no legal framework for handling such risks.”
During one “major space weather event”, in October 2003, the FAA issued a formal warned that all routes north and south of 35 degree latitude “were subject to excessive radiation doses” and the researchers said further airline disruption was almost certain.
In 1990 such health risks to aircrew were recognised by the International Commission on Radiological Protection with EU-based aircrew classified as radiation workers in 2000. Most airlines now monitor levels during safety assessments.
Prof Mike Hapgood, the head of the Laboratory’s Space Environment Group, who led the study, told The Daily Telegraph that a person flying from London to the US West Coast would receive extra radiation levels to that given from an chest x-ray, which is fairly low.
But Prof Hapgood, who will give evidence to MPs next week, said that during a big solar storm radiation levels would sharply spike, with a passenger on a long haul flight being exposed to the equivalent of dozens of x-rays at once.
“There is an increased risk of cancer,” said Prof Hapgood, who undertakes scientific research into “near-Earth space” activity.
“People would be sensible to think about kind of work they do, how much flying they do and what risk that poses. I don’t think that is unreasonable.”
The Lloyds study urged business to “plan accordingly” and develop safeguards against the event.
The researchers found “vulnerable” and unprepared British firms could be hit with “widespread disruption”.
Between five and 10 per cent of critical infrastructure is government owned and business understanding on the subject was “patchy”, which left many facing uncertainty.
A power grid or satellite breakdown would leave a multi-million pound cost to the economy as solar flares trigger “cascading failures across systems”.
“Because space weather affects major global systems… a very severe outbreak presents a systematic risk,” the report said.
The Daily Telegraph disclosed in September that ministers fear the electricity grid, financial networks and transport infrastructure could be paralysed by a solar flare or a nuclear attack.
Such an event would be similar to the recent volcanic ash cloud disruption to airline travel or the chaos caused by the recent bouts of snowy weather, which left a multi-billion pound bill to firms.
The researchers cited a Quebec power grid failure in 1989 which, following a magnetic storm, caused it to shutdown, leaving five million people without electricity during the winter for more than nine hours and left a damage bill of more than C$2billion (£1.23 billion).