Flight attendants get more uterine, thyroid and other cancers, study finds

Lynette PayneJun 27, 2018

As a group, they get certain cancers more than the general population, according to a new study.

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.

Dr Irina Mordukhovich, one of the report's authors, said: "Consistent with previous studies, we report a higher lifetime prevalence of breast, melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers among flight crew relative to the general population".

"This is striking given the low rates of being overweight and smoking in this occupational group".

She said circadian rhythm disruption, or sleep deprivation and irregular schedules, both at home and work may contribute to the higher risks of breast cancer.

Each five-year increase spent working as a flight attendant increased risk of non-melanoma skin cancer among women and higher risk of breast cancer in women who had never had children or those who had had three or more. They are also exposed to higher levels of cosmic ionizing radiation; the World Health Organization says this is a cancer risk. They also had more than double the risk of melanoma and more than quadruple the odds of being diagnosed with other forms of skin cancer. Women cabin crew, in particular, were more likely to develop breast, melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer.

Among women crew members, the rates of breast (3.4 percent of flight crew vs 2.3 percent in the general population), uterine (0.15 vs 0.13), cervical (1.0 vs 0.70), gastrointestinal (0.47 vs 0.27), and thyroid (0.67 vs 0.56) cancers were only slightly elevated compared with controls, yet statistical analyses indicated that this pattern was very unlikely due to random chance. And yet, for the attendants themselves, the job is particularly unsafe when considering the cancer risks.

"Non-melanoma skin cancer among women increased with more years on the job, suggesting a work-related association", McNeely said by email.

The findings suggest that additional efforts should be made to minimize the risk of cancer among flight attendants, including monitoring radiation dose and organising schedules to minimize radiation exposure and circadian rhythm disruption, the researchers suggested.

This was compared to data from 23,729 men and women with similar economic status who participated in the National Health and Nutrition Examination survey during the same years. For instance, there are no official limits to the amount of cosmic ionizing radiation flight crews can be exposed to and their exposure is not monitored. The study did not examine the health impact of frequent flying among airline passengers.

Earlier this month we reported how campaigners concerned by leaks of toxic fumes into cabin air on flights on passenger planes that have bleed air systems recycling air that has passed over the engine are calling for an global inquiry into how this affects the health of passengers and crew.

"In the European Union, air crew's radiation exposures are monitored and their schedules are created to minimise their dose, especially while pregnant".

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