Exposure to radiation, carcinogens puts flight attendants at high risk of cancer

Grant Boone
June 27, 2018

These elevated cancer rates were observed despite indications of good-health behaviors, such as low levels of smoking and obesity, in the flight-attendant group as a whole, the study authors said.

The FAHS included more than 5,300 flight attendants who were recruited through online and mailed surveys, and given in person at airports.

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

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.

For male flight attendants, the authors found higher rates of melanoma (1.2 percent of flight crew compared with 0.69 percent in the general population) and non-melanoma skin cancer (3.2 vs 2.9 percent).

Flight crews have higher than average rates of certain cancers, according to a study of more than 5,000 US-based flight attendants. The association also noted that the United States federal government now does not require airlines to educate cabin crews about onboard radiation exposure, or to offer additional protections from radiation-including for pregnant flight attendants.

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.

Commercial flight crews show higher cancer rates, study suggests
Air cabin crews receive the highest yearly dose of ionizing radiation on the job of all USA workers, she added. This despite cabin crew being generally less overweight and less likely to smoke than non-crew.

Which cancer risks are increased in flight attendants?

Dr. Mordukhovich knows of no studies about cancer risk in frequent fliers, but they are at risk of being exposed to ionizing radiation and possible shifts in their sleep-wake cycles.

The Harvard Flight Attendant Health Study (FAHS), begun in 2007, addresses some of the gaps in understanding health risks among flight attendants. "This may be due to combined sources of circadian rhythm disruption-that is sleep deprivation and irregular schedules-both at home and work", Mordukhovich added. The current study used information from the 2014 to 2015 survey and compared it to health outcomes from 2,729 control subjects who were matched for socioeconomic status. On average, attendants were 51 years old and had been working in the profession for just over 20 years.

British experts have estimated airline crews receive a higher dose of radiation over a year than workers in the nuclear industry.

"Neither OSHA nor the FAA require airlines to educate flight attendants about onboard radiation exposure or offer protections during pregnancy, cabin air can be contaminated, and cabin crew fatigue is prevalent", Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said in a statement.

Researchers also couldn't say whether tumors developed before or after participants started working as flight attendants.

A flight attendant's life may look glamorous, but the job comes with health hazards that go beyond managing surly passengers. This despite cabin crew being generally less overweight and less likely to smoke than non-crew.

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