Flight attendants exposed to greater risk of cancers

Faith Castro
June 28, 2018

The findings revealed that the attendants had higher rates of every cancer assessed, particularly breast cancer, melanoma, and non-melanoma skin cancer among women. The new findings are based on a 2014-2015 survey of 5,366 US flight attendants in which they were asked about self-reported health outcomes and symptoms, work experience, personal characteristics, and aviation employment history. The authors said the results were "striking" given the low rates of overweight and smoking flight attendants.

If you've even sat in the wrong spot, you're more likely to get sick.

There's been very little research on the health risks faced by flight attendants.

Irina Mordukhovich, from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and colleagues looked at the data of self-reported cancer cases of flight attendants in the Harvard Flight Attendant Health Study and then compared these with those recorded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

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.

The research does not answer why flight attendants report higher cancer numbers, but the authors have some ideas, based on earlier research. Flight attendants are more often exposed to probable carcinogens in the cabin environment including cosmic ionizing radiation at flight altitude. "Combine that with this disruption from the job, especially for those who fly internationally, this may be an indication that the circadian rhythm disruption is having an impact". According to the researchers, higher rates of breast cancer in flight attendants are also related to the fact that, due to the requirements of their profession, they usually have fewer children and acquire their first child at an older age than the average of women, with the risk of developing breast cancer.

Mordukhovich said in a statement, "Flight attendants are considered a historically understudied occupational group, so there is a lot we don't know about their health".

Mordukhovich said that aside from policy, crew members can take certain precautions such as wearing sunscreen on the aircraft to protect from UV rays, maintaining healthy and consistent sleep practices on their days off, as well as eating a healthy diet and exercising.

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Flight attendants have soaring cancer rates compared to the general population, according to a new study.

Disruptions in circadian rhythm - a person's daily sleep-wake cycle - are linked to an increased cancer risk, studies have shown.

"Our findings raise the question of what can be done to minimize the adverse exposures and cancers common among cabin crew". Other concerns include the myriad substances cabin crews are exposed to because of engine leaks, pesticides, and flame retardants, all three of which are suspected carcinogens.

Long-haul trips which disrupt the body clock and affect hormone levels are additional risks.

In Europe, flight attendants' exposure to cosmic ionizing radiation is monitored and limited more by law.

Male caregivers also have a 50% greater risk of skin melanoma (1.2% vs. 0.69% in the general male population) and about 10% increased risk for skin cancer other than melanoma (3.2% versus 2.9%).

Dr Heutelbeck has also been treating passengers who are frequent flyers as well. About 15 percent of the participants reported ever having been diagnosed with cancer, a higher prevalence than the general population.

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