Cabin crew exposed to greater cancer risk, study finds

Spencer Underwood
June 28, 2018

"Women with three or more children are already probably not getting enough sleep".

Flight attendants are exposed to a number of known cancer-causing risks, but few studies have rigorously quantified that risk, and researchers say they are an understudied occupational group.

Scientists said the findings, including the first results into an elevated rate of non-melanoma skin cancer, are particularly worrying considering the relative good health of the flight attendants included in the sample.

As the findings shows that prevalence of breast, melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers was high among flight attendants compared to the general population, the researchers suggest that measures such as monitoring the radiation doses and organising a proper work routine should be taken to minimise cancer causing risk among the cabin crew. They also had more than double the risk of melanoma and more than quadruple the odds of being diagnosed with other forms of skin cancer. Compared with other U.S. workers exposed to radiation, cabin crews are subject to the largest annual ionizing radiation dose due to their exposure to cosmic radiation.

Over 5,300 US -based flight attendants took part in the Harvard Flight Attendant Health Study between 2014-2015, although the results have only just been published. The comparison indicated a higher risk of various types of cancers in flight attendants than the people who did not belong to that profession.

Some 3.4 percent of the women who flew for a living had breast cancer, compared to 2.3 percent in the general population.

"This study is the first to show higher prevalences of all cancers studied, and significantly higher prevalences of non-melanoma skin cancer compared to a similarly matched USA sample population", explained the lead researcher, Eileen McNeely in comments reported by Reuters.


"This is striking given the low rates of overweight and smoking in this occupational group", said Mordukhovich, co-author of a study published on Tuesday in the journal Environmental Health. The study does not explain why flight attendants have higher cancer rates.

Disruptions in circadian rhythm - a person's daily sleep-wake cycle - are linked to an increased cancer risk, studies have shown.

Jet lag might also be an attributing factor, write the authors of the study, as fluctuations in immune-system strength can change cell metabolism and increase the likelihood of tumor growth.

"Our findings raise the question of what can be done to minimize the adverse exposures and cancers common among cabin crew". The women and men who worked as flight attendants prior to 1988, when smoking was first banned on some USA flights, were routinely exposed to secondhand smoke while on board the aircraft.

Researchers have long found that flight attendants have increased the risk for breast cancer and melanoma.

The authors recommend that further efforts be made in the USA to limit cancer risk among this work population such as radiation dose monitoring and the implementation of schedules that will lower exposure to radiation and prevent the disruption of circadian rhythms.

The study also found female flight attendants with three or more kids were more likely to have breast cancer.

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