Natural background radiation

We are all exposed to some amount of radiation just from being on this planet. This is known as background radiation. In the United States this averages about 3 mSv per year. For most people, background radiation accounts for most of their exposure to ionizing radiation during the year. It comes from several different sources.

Cosmic rays

Cosmic rays are radioactive particles that hit the earth from outer space. They come from the sun and from other stars. The earth’s atmosphere blocks a portion of these rays, but some of them reach the ground.

Because the atmosphere blocks some cosmic rays, exposure is greater at higher altitudes. For example, people who live in Denver, Colorado, which is at a high elevation, are exposed to slightly more cosmic rays than people living at sea level. People are also exposed to higher levels of cosmic rays during airplane flights. Airline pilots and flight attendants, who spend many hours at high elevations, are exposed to more of these rays, but it is not clear if they have an increased risk of cancer because of it.

Radiation in the earth

People are also exposed to small amounts of radiation from radioactive elements that occur naturally in rocks and soil. Some of these may end up in building materials used in houses and other structures. Tiny amounts of radiation may even be found in drinking water and in some plant-based foods as a result of being in contact with the soil. For people who smoke, tobacco can account for a significant portion of the yearly radiation they receive.


The largest source of natural background radiation for most people is radon. This is an odorless, colorless gas that is formed from the breakdown of radioactive elements in the ground. Radon levels are usually higher inside buildings and homes, especially in levels closer to the ground such as basements. Radon levels can vary a great deal, depending on where you live or work. For example, exposure is higher for people who work in mines. For more detailed information on radon and its possible health effects, see Radon.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Medical Review: February 24, 2015 Last Revised: February 24, 2015

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