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Prof’s Research Finds Good News: Solar Events Unlikely Cause of Birth Defects

Physics professor Dr. Andrew Overholt has made science headlines again, this time with his research on the effects of solar events on birth defects—and it is good news. Radiation from solar flares is too weak to cause concern for people living at ground level says Overholt and his colleagues.

Overholt’s NASA-funded study is on the “Terrestrial Impact of Nearby Supernovae.” This study is trying to determine what happens to life on Earth when a star explodes near us. The research centers on how cosmic rays affect us; and these cosmic rays can come from solar events as well as exploding stars. His newest study is a result of his interest in a couple of papers published recently suggesting that birth defects could be triggered by solar events.

“People typically worry about electronics when it comes to solar flares,” he says. “Sometimes flights over the far Northern hemisphere are even grounded because we know they [flares] cause damage. But until recently no one was particularly worried about the health effects of cosmic rays at ground level. These recent papers suggested that they could cause birth defects, and we decided to investigate these claims.”

Running computational simulations, Overholt calculated how much radiation resulted at ground level from these events.

“Our simulations show that it is not nearly enough to cause birth defects by a factor of 1000,” he says. “There is a possibility that the damage from muons [particles that make up much of the cosmic radiation reaching the earth's surface] is higher than our simulations show, however without experiments to test the DNA damage of muons, this remains an unanswered question. Hopefully we will get an answer to this in the future, however for the time being I wouldn’t suggest covering your house in tin foil.”

Colleagues in the study also include Adrian Mellott, PhD, from The University of Kansas and Dimitra Atri, PhD, of Blue Marble Space Institute of Science. Results have just been published in the Journal of Geophysical Research and hailed as one of three “Editor’s Choice” publications for the first quarter of 2015 by Space Weather.

Read more on the study at astrobiology.nasa.gov. See previous stories about Dr. Overholt’s work on MNU’s newsroom. 

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