Commercial flight crews show higher cancer rates, study suggests

Grant Boone
June 27, 2018

Female flight attendants had a higher prevalence of every cancer, especially breast cancer and skin cancer - including melanoma (the deadliest skin cancer) and other non-melanoma types of skin cancers, such as basal cell and squamous cell. Typically, the more children a woman has, the lower her risk of breast cancer.

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).

Irina Mordukhovich, corresponding author of the study, said the research is one of "the largest and most comprehensive studies of cancer among cabin crew to date". Even when flight attendants reported having stereotypically good health, diet, and exercise regimens, the likelihood that they would be stricken with certain cancers was still higher than the other survey respondents.

There is sparse literature on this topic, and future research is needed to evaluate the association between in-flight exposures and cancer among the cabin crew, monitoring their exposure to ionizing radiation, and figuring out ways to minimize this exposure.

The Harvard Flight Attendant Health Study (FAHS), begun in 2007, addresses some of the gaps in understanding health risks among flight attendants.

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 also have disrupted sleep schedules, since they frequently cross time zones and aren't able to maintain a regular circadian wake-sleep cycle.

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As airline policy changes work to catch up with research, flight attendant and frequent fliers can take steps now to help protect themselves from possible cancer-causing agents.

Sun exposure, a leading risk factor for skin cancers, might also be higher for flight attendants because they might spend time in the sun on layovers, noted Dr. Alessandra Buja, of the University of Padova in Italy, in an email.

Air cabin crews receive the highest yearly dose of ionizing radiation on the job of all USA workers, she added.

The authors used self-reported data from 5,366 U.S. flight attendants and compared it with data from a matching group of 2,729 men and women with similar economic status who participated in the National Health and Nutrition Examination survey collected during the same years.

While cosmic radiation originates in outer space, small amounts reach the earth, and greater chances of exposure occur at higher altitudes.

"The specific pattern we are seeing is firstly lung injury - the lung's breathing mechanism is fine, but there are problems getting the oxygen out of the air", said Dr Heutelbeck, adding that there are also a common pattern of symptoms related with neurotoxicity and small fibre nerve damage. That exposure may not be concerning for people taking individual flights, but for people whose jobs involve flying, that risk may have a negative effect on their health, as the study results suggest. This despite cabin crew being generally less overweight and less likely to smoke than non-crew.

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