Flight Attendants Have Higher Rates of Many Cancers, Study Says

The study, which was conducted by researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, Massachusetts, surveyed 5,366 USA flight crew members and found that slightly over 15 per cent of them reported having been diagnosed with cancer.

One possible explanation for these increased rates is that flight attendants are exposed to a lot of known and potential carcinogens, or cancer-causing agents, within their work environment, said lead study author Irina Mordukhovich, a research associate at Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

A separate study in April involving almost 6,100 US flight attendants found no meaningful link between cosmic radiation or circadian rhythm disruption and several cancers.

Male flight attendants were found to have higher rates of skin cancer - 1.2% and 3.2% for melanoma and non-melanoma cancer, respectively, compared with 0.69% and 2.9% for the adult population as a whole.

"This is striking given the low rates of overweight and smoking in this occupational group", she said in a statement.

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

And it was only associated with higher risk of breast cancer in women who either had never had children - nulliparity - or had three or more.

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The flight-crew rate was 0.15 per cent compared to 0.13 per cent for uterine cancer; 1.0 compared to 0.70 per cent for cervical cancer; 0.47 compared to 0.27 per cent for stomach or colon cancer; and 0.67 compared to 0.56 per cent for thyroid cancer. This type of radiation is particularly damaging to DNA and is a known cause of breast cancer and nonmelanoma skin cancer, she said.

Nearly every commercial flight begins with a member of the cabin crew delivering a spiel to passengers about inflight safety. (Other radiation workers have certain occupational safety regulations in place to protect them from exposure and restrict risky exposure.) The European Union regulates flight attendant schedules and flying time of pregnant flight attendants to limit potentially unsafe exposures.

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.

Previous research by scientists in Iceland suggested stewardesses were up to five times more likely to contract breast cancer. And the risk of melanoma rose three times for cabin crew of both sexes.

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

"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.

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

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