Flight attendants are at high risk of cancer


Flight crews have higher than average rates of certain cancers, according to a study of more than 5,000 US-based flight attendants.

Flight attendants had a 51% higher prevalence of breast cancers, more than two-fold higher prevalence of melanoma and four-fold greater prevalence of non melanoma skin cancers, compared to people not in the profession. "Consistent with previous studies, we report a higher lifetime prevalence of breast, melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers among flight crew relative to the general population".

The flight-crew rate was 0.15% compared with 0.13% for uterine cancer; 1.0% compared with 0.70% for cervical cancer; 0.47% compared with 0.27% for stomach or colon cancer; and 0.67% compared with 0.56% for thyroid cancer.

A research associate, Irina Mordukhovich at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health led the research team.

Over the course of their careers, flight attendants are regularly exposed to several known and probable carcinogens, including cosmic ionizing radiation, disrupted sleep cycles and circadian rhythms, and possible chemical contaminants in the airplane.

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Cancer rates in male flight attendants were almost 50 percent higher for melanoma and about 10 percent higher for nonmelanoma skin cancers compared with men from the general population group, according to the findings. Not having children is a known risk factor for the disease in women, but the researchers were surprised to see increased rates in those with multiple kids.

Typically, the more children a woman has, the lower her risk of breast cancer.

Any current or former United States flight attendant was eligible to participate in the study, with the vast majority (91%) now employed in a cabin crew role.

Although it's still not a proven link, the researchers writing in Environmental Health think USA airlines could do more to protect flight attendants from the perils of radiation and abnormal sleep patterns.

It requires airlines to monitor radiation dose (especially for pregnant attendants), organizes schedules to reduce radiation exposure, and informs workers of current studies. The flight attendants get more frequently exposed to carcinogens such as jet fuel, fire retardants, and pesticides in comparison to others. "Combine that with this disruption from the job, especially for those who fly internationally, this may be an indication that the circadian rhythm disruption is having an impact".

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Funding for the study came from Flight Attendant Medical Research Institute grant Central Intelligence Agency 150083.

The researchers studied the data from a survey conducted from 2013 to 2014 as part of the Flight Attendant Health Study, which was first launched in 2007.

"Non-melanoma skin cancer among women increased with more years on the job, suggesting a work-related association", McNeely said by email. The sample group was more than 80 percent female and had an average tenure of 20 years, with 91 percent actively employed.

At high altitudes, where the air is thinner and provides less of a shield, passengers and crew can be exposed to between 100 and 300 times the cosmic radiation dose they receive at sea level. They also observed that women cabin crew members have an increased risk of developing breast, melanoma, and non-melanoma cancer.

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