Flight attendants have a higher risk of cancer than the general population, study suggests

A study published in Environmental Health says flight attendants may be affected, even more than the pilots on their flights.


Flight attendants have a higher risk of some forms of cancer, a new study found.

The researchers found that men and women are on the AMERICAN flight attendants have higher rates of many types of cancer, compared with the general population. This includes cancers of the breast, cervix, skin, thyroid, and uterus, as well as gastro-intestinal system forms of cancer, including colon, stomach, esophagus, liver and pancreatic cancer.

A possible explanation for this increase is that the flight attendants are exposed to many of the known and potential carcinogenic substances or carcinogenic substances within their work environment, said lead study author Irina Mordukhovich, research associate at Harvard University’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health.


One of those carcinogens is cosmic ionizing radiation, which is increased in the higher areas, Mordukhovich told Live Science. This type of radiation is particularly damaging to DNA and is a known cause of breast cancer and nonmelanoma skin cancer, ” she said.

Air cabin crew member received the highest annual dose of ionising radiation to the work of all AMERICAN workers, she added.

In the new study, the researchers looked at data from more than 5,300 flight attendants from the various airlines that completed an online survey as part of the Harvard flight attendant Health Study. The analysis looked at the number of cancer cases in these flight attendants compared with a group of about 2,700 people with a similar income and level of education, but were not the stewards.

The researchers found that in female flight attendants, the rates of breast cancer were about 50 percent higher than in women from the general population. In addition, melanoma rates were more than two times higher, and nonmelanoma skin cancer rates were about four times higher in female flight attendants compared to women from the general population. (Nonmelanoma skin cancers are basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas.)

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

Cancer rates in male flight attendants were almost 50 percent higher for melanoma and about 10 percent higher for nonmelanoma skin cancer in comparison with men from the general population, according to the findings.

Risks of very frequent flying

The potential risk of cancer for flight attendants are not limited to cosmic ionizing radiation. Members of the cabin crew are also regularly exposed to more UV radiation than the general population, which will ensure that these workers are more vulnerable to skin cancers, Mordukhovich said.


In addition, some studies have shown that circadian rhythm disruptions such as jet lag, would be linked with an increased risk of cancer, ” she said. These disruptions can lead to changes in the immune system and the metabolism of cells, which can reduce the control of tumors.

Another possible threat to the health of the cabin crew is exposure to chemical substances, according to the study. The women and men who worked as flight attendants prior to 1988, when smoking was first banned on some US flights, were routinely exposed to passive smoking, while on board the aircraft.

Other chemical contaminants found in the cabin are engine leaks, pesticides, flame retardants, which are substances that can act as hormone disruptors and increase the risk of some forms of cancer, Mordukhovich said.

Chemistry, of the engine leaks and flame retardants, are thought to possibly increase the risk by acting as hormonal disturbances. But also other factors, such as exposure to radiation, and disturbances in sleep patterns, may also be responsible for the outcome of the investigation.


Further complicating matters is that the flight attendants in the US do not have the same protection professional as their colleagues in the European Union. Since levels of exposure to radiation, and work schedules are regularly monitored and adjusted to ensure flight attendants are not higher than certain guidelines for exposure to carcinogenic, Mordukhovich said.

There is but little research has been done to the health of the flight attendants, but they are not the only travelers to the higher rates of cancer. The amount may also be higher for directors and people that fly often as passengers, Mordukhovich said. Studies of pilots have generally shown higher rates of skin and prostate cancers, she noted, adding that the pilots also have been found to have circadian rhythm disruption, but these workers have something more built-in protections around their work schedules and rest periods than the flight attendants do.

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


Some of the limitations of the study is that researchers were not able to take into account the individual UV-exposure, such as sunbathing habits, or leisure time activities, that may influence skin cancer risk. In addition, cancer treatment and were self-reported by study participants, and these diagnoses were not confirmed by an audit of their medical records by the researchers, according to the study.

The study findings are published online Monday in the journal Environmental Health.

Originally published on Live Science.

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