Cosmic radiation refers to sources of radiation in the form of cosmic rays that come from the Sun or from outer space. The earth has always been bombarded by high-energy particles originating in outer space that generate secondary particle showers in the lower atmosphere. Charged particles (especially high-energy protons) from the sun and outer space interact with the earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field to produce a shower of radiation (i.e. air shower), typically beta and gamma radiation. If you live at higher elevations or are a frequent airline passenger, this exposure can be significantly higher, since the atmosphere is thinner here. The effects of the earth’s magnetic field also determines the dose from cosmic radiation.
Dose Rate at Ground Level
The primary cosmic radiation consist of a mixture of high-energy protons (~87%), alpha particles (~11%), high-energy electrons (~1%) and a trace of heavier nuclei (~1%). The energy of these particles range between 108 eV and 1020 eV. A very small fraction are stable particles of antimatter, such as positrons or antiprotons. The precise nature of this remaining fraction is an area of active research.
Subsequently, a large number of secondary particles, in particular, neutrons and charged pions are produced as a result of interactions between primary particles and the earth’s atmosphere. Since pions are short-lived subatomic particles, the subsequent decay of the pions result in the production of high-energy muons. At ground level the muons, with energies mostly between 1 and 20 GeV, contribute about 75 % of the absorbed dose rate in free air. The remainder comes from electrons produced by the muons or present in the electromagnetic cascade. The annual cosmic ray dose at sea level is around 0.27 mSv (27 mrem).
Dose Rate during Flight
During flight, we are more exposed to cosmic radiation than at the ground. At the maximum flight altitude (8.8 km or 29,000 ft) it can reach about 2.0 μSv/h (or even higher values). A dose rate of 4 μSv/h may be used to represent the average dose rate for all long haul flights (due to higher altitudes). It must be added, for supersonic planes like the Concorde, that could make a transatlantic flight in 3.5 hours, the exposure rate (about 9 μSv/h) at their altitude of 18 km was increased enough to result in the same cosmic ray exposure per crossing as for conventional jets trundling along at about 8 km.
Cosmic Radiation – Is it dangerous?
We must emphasize, eating bananas, working as airline flight crew or living in locations with, increases your annual dose rate. But it does not mean, that it must be dangerous. In each case, intensity of radiation also matters. It is very similar as for heat from a fire (less energetic radiation). If you are too close, the intensity of heat radiation is high and you can get burned. If you are at the right distance, you can withstand there without any problems and moreover it is comfortable. If you are too far from heat source, the insufficiency of heat can also hurt you. This analogy, in a certain sense, can be applied to radiation also from radiation sources.
In case of radiation from bananas, we are talking about so called “low doses”. Low dose here means additional small doses comparable to the normal background radiation (10 µSv = average daily dose received from natural background). The doses are very very low and therefore the probability of cancer induction could be almost negligible. Secondly, and this is crucial, the truth about low-dose radiation health effects still needs to be found. It is not exactly known, whether these low doses of radiation are detrimental or beneficial (and where is the threshold). Government and regulatory bodies assume a LNT model instead of a threshold or hormesis not because it is the more scientifically convincing, but because it is the more conservative estimate. Problem of this model is that it neglects a number of defence biological processes that may be crucial at low doses. The research during the last two decades is very interesting and show that small doses of radiation given at a low dose rate stimulate the defense mechanisms. Therefore the LNT model is not universally accepted with some proposing an adaptive dose–response relationship where low doses are protective and high doses are detrimental. Many studies have contradicted the LNT model and many of these have shown adaptive response to low dose radiation resulting in reduced mutations and cancers. This phenomenon is known as radiation hormesis.