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What are the Health Effects of Cosmic Rays on the Human Body?

Michael Anissimov
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Cosmic rays are energetic particles (not actually rays) traveling rapidly through space. They are everywhere, and several dozen slam into your body every second. These cosmic rays are too low-energy to cause any serious health effects, aside from a few genetic mutations, and cosmic rays are in fact one of the drivers of evolution. Your body receives about 2.4 mSv (milliSieverts) of radiation caused by the effects of cosmic rays every year. For comparison, it takes about 1 Sievert of radiation in a short time to cause nausea, and about 2-6 Sieverts to cause death.

The health effects of cosmic rays change at higher altitudes, where the cosmic ray flux increases exponentially up to an altitude of about 15 km (9 mi), then drops off rapidly. Because of this, people who spend a lot of time at high altitudes, like airline pilots, stewardesses, and Air Force test pilots, experience dozens of times the effects of cosmic rays that people on the ground do. This is still well below the career limit of 1-4 Sv recommended by the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements. The cosmic ray flux is low enough in the Earth's atmosphere that exposure only becomes an issue in space.

On the International Space Station, 350 km (217 mi) above the surface of the Earth, astronauts experience the effects of cosmic rays hundreds of times more numerous than those experienced by people on the ground. The Earth's atmosphere is such an effective insulator that barely any particles actually make it to the ground, and most of what people are exposed to is secondary radiation from collisions in the upper atmosphere. On space stations, astronauts are exposed to primary radiation. However, people have spent more than a year in space with no ill effects from cosmic rays, and it seems plausible that indefinitely long stays are possible.

The people who would be most exposed to cosmic rays are people journeying between the Earth and the Moon or the Earth and other planets. The Earth is primarily shielded by its magnetosphere, a huge magnetic field that extends about 70,000 km (43,500 mi) from the Earth's surface in every direction. Leave the magnetosphere, and you are exposed to galactic cosmic rays -- one of the strongest types -- which are typically blocked by the Earth's magnetic shielding. Accordingly, Apollo astronauts reported seeing flashes of light in their eyeballs, which may have been galactic cosmic rays. The effects of prolonged exposure to these rays -- say, on a Mars mission -- are unknown.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Anissimov
By Michael Anissimov , Writer
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated The Health Board contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism to his articles. An avid blogger, Michael is deeply passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. His professional experience includes work with the Methuselah Foundation, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and Lifeboat Foundation, further showcasing his commitment to scientific advancement.

Discussion Comments

By anon997225 — On Nov 30, 2016

Could global warming be caused by two atom bombs in Allen Field in 1958 when all weather changed drastically afterward? Could global warming be caused by rocket ignitions in the atmosphere that depleted the ozone later up to 300 percent during the SkyLab launch? Could global warming be caused by catalytic converters that no longer show the particles of exhaust, but create even worse nanoparticles that are worse for the atmosphere and all life on earth? Why then would humans ever be taxed for a carbon footprint? I don't understand.

By anon970504 — On Sep 18, 2014

These cosmic rays affect our earth?

By anon167137 — On Apr 11, 2011

I am doing a paper on cosmetic radiation, and my question is what is cosmic radiation and why is it dangerous?

By healthnwell — On Feb 23, 2011

@abundancer--My husband is a closet meteorologist, so as he has been studying some of this, I have tagged along. From what he has told me, some studies think that there might be a connection, but nothing has been correlated for the past thirty years of global warming. IF there was a correlation, the cosmic gases could play a part in cloud formation. With an increase in cosmic rays, the clouds would increase, thus having a cooling effect. Likewise, if there was a decrease in the cosmic rays, there would be a decrease in clouds helping with global warming.

By abundancer — On Feb 22, 2011

Are these cosmic rays similar to the UV rays we all are familiar with when talking about damage from the sun? Does the global warming effect that we are dealing with effect this at all?

By anon81594 — On May 02, 2010

well can you please tell me what health conditions happen to the astronauts!

Michael Anissimov

Michael Anissimov


Michael Anissimov is a dedicated The Health Board contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology...
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