Heightened security is making air travel increasingly burdensome for even the most hardened business traveler. Terrorist threats notwithstanding, traveling by air remains a remarkably safe way to go given the obvious dangers of cruising atop multiple jet engines at 35,000 feet. But is it equally safe for everyone? One potentially vulnerable group of travelers is pregnant women and the fragile cargo they carry on board.
Evidence for the Health Claim
One of the health risks healthcare providers caution pregnant travelers against is the lower cabin pressure and decreased oxygen levels during flights. Many healthcare providers advise their patients to avoid flying at high altitudes in nonpressurized aircraft (especially those used for commuter flights), to minimize the possibility of miscarriage resulting from insufficient oxygen reaching the fetus. In fact, supplemental oxygen is often given to passengers who are experiencing complications in their pregnancy and still have to fly.
Another health concern is the risk to the fetus when pregnant women are exposed to cosmic radiation during high-altitude flights. While this may pose minimal risk for the occasional traveler, frequent flyers, including pilots and flight attendants, are often exposed to more intense levels of radiation. Some experts claim that the fetus’s exposure to in-flight radiation can result in birth defects and an increased risk of childhood cancer.
Evidence Against the Health Claim
Many healthcare providers and aviation health experts maintain that commercial air travel poses no special risks to a pregnant woman or her fetus.
They argue that there is no convincing evidence that the incidence of miscarriage is greater in frequent travelers and flight personnel than it is in the general population. Furthermore, studies have shown that 15%-20% of pregnant women will spontaneously miscarry a fetus in the early stages of pregnancy, regardless of their occupation.
On the radiation issue, many experts agree that the determining factor in assessing the risk to the fetus is the level of exposure as well as the length and frequency of the flights. In fact, many health experts say that the exposure to radiation during commercial flights is very low, well below the dose that could potentially harm the fetus.
There is insufficient evidence to support the claim that infrequent air travel during an uncomplicated, low-risk pregnancy is harmful to the mother or fetus, particularly for longer flights during which the cabins are well-pressurized. Women with significant medical problems and those whose pregnancy is considered high-risk, however, should generally avoid flying unless absolutely necessary.
All pregnant women should consult their healthcare provider before planning any air travel. Of course, most healthcare providers wisely advise their patients against flying during the final month of pregnancy, since 35,000 feet is not an ideal place to go into labor. Another important consideration is the destination, which may pose far greater risks than the flight itself, particularly if traveling internationally.
The news is less reassuring for pregnant flight personnel who need to fly nearly every day. The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) advises pregnant flight personnel and their employers to cut back on flight schedules for this reason.