United States flight attendants at elevated risk of several forms of cancer

Henrietta Brewer
June 28, 2018

"We report that flight attendants have elevated rates of several cancers, especially breast, melanoma, and non-melanoma skin cancers", the researchers wrote in their study.

These included those of the breast (3.4% against 2.3%), womb (0.15% against 0.13%), cervix (1% compared to 0.7%), gastrointestines (0.47% compared to 0.27%) and thyroid (0.67% compared to 0.56%).

Flight attendants appear to have a glamorous job but findings of a new study suggest that their occupation comes with health hazards.

But she noted that higher rates of breast cancer among female flight attendants might be due to the fact that they had fewer children and gave birth for the first time later in life than other women.

Male flight attendants were found to have higher rates of melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer (1.2% and 3.2% compared to 0.69% and 2.9% in the general population, respectively).

"At work most of the things are decided for you", said Irina Mordukhovich, a research fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the study's corresponding author. Researchers worringly concluded that flight attendants had a more than quadruple chance of developing other forms of skin cancer compared to the control group.

Researchers asked 5,366 flight attendants and 2,729 other adults with similar socioeconomic backgrounds whether they had ever been diagnosed with cancer.

Those carcinogens most notably include higher doses of cosmic radiation that flight crews are exposed to because of long hours spent working at high altitude, a situation that can be exacerbated on flights at high latitudes or over the Earth's magnetic poles.

Other potential risk factors include sleep-cycle disruption brought on by overnight flights and crossing time-zones, past exposure to secondhand smoke in the cabin and ongoing exposures to chemicals such as pesticides, which are used to sterilize cabins on some worldwide flights. These disruptions could lead to changes in immune function and cell metabolism, which can reduce the suppression of tumors.

"Our findings raise the question of what can be done to minimize the adverse exposures and cancers common among cabin crew".

This was especially true for the attendants working before smoking on planes was banned in the United States, in 1998.

Over 80 percent of the flight attendants who took part in the study were women.

There, exposure levels to radiation as well as work schedules are routinely monitored and adjusted to make sure flight attendants don't exceed certain guidelines for carcinogen exposure, Mordukhovich said. The authors point out that USA flight crew are subject to fewer protections than most workers in this industry, which may limit the generalizability of the results.

Mordukhovich and colleagues also made another surprising discovery.

While these results confirm earlier research linking work as a flight attendant to an increased risk of certain cancers - especially breast and skin malignancies - the study wasn't created to prove whether or how the job might directly cause tumors.

Although the cancer risks for frequent flyers have not yet been studied, there is no reason to suspect these people would not have similar risks as those faced by cabin crews, Mordukhovich said.

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