A Korean labor court has ruled that a long-serving flight attendant who regularly worked long-haul flights that passed over the North Pole died from stomach cancer that was likely caused by years of exposure to cosmic radiation.
The flight attendant, who was only identified as Song, worked for Korean Air between 1995 and 2021 and would spend as much as 1,022 hours on a plane every year, the Korea Worker’s Compensation & Welfare Service heard.
As the name suggests, cosmic radiation comes from outer space and while very little of this radiation reaches the earth, at high altitudes, passengers and crewmembers are exposed to higher levels of radiation.
The risk posed by cosmic radiation is even higher on long-haul flights, especially those that pass over either the North or South Poles, where the protective nature of the Earth’s atmosphere is much thinner.
At an international level, it’s still not fully understood what effect cosmic radiation might have on humans, although many authorities recommend keeping exposure to ionising radiation – as measured by mSv – as low as possible.
In the U.S., the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements reports that aircrew receive the largest average annual effective dose (3.07 mSv) of all US radiation-exposed workers.
In Korea, however, between 2017 and 2021, were found to be exposed to an average maximum radiation level of around 5.42 mSv.
In its defense, Korean Air said it had ensured flight attendants were never exposed to more than 6 mSv every year – a maximum limit that is recommended by a number of aviation agencies, including the European Air Safety Agency.
The airline also argued that with so little still known about the effects of cosmic radiation, the court couldn’t draw a correlation between the flight attendant’s cancer and their exposure to cosmic radiation.
The court rejected that argument and, according to the Yonhap news agency, concluded there was a “considerable” correlation.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.