Flight attendants may have increased risk for certain cancers

Lynette PayneJun 27, 2018

Sun exposure, a leading risk factor for skin cancers, might also be higher for flight attendants because they might spend time in the sun on layovers, noted Dr. Alessandra Buja, of the University of Padova in Italy, in an email. Even when flight attendants reported having stereotypically good health, diet, and exercise regimens, the likelihood that they would be stricken with certain cancers was still higher than the other survey respondents.

Get the latest health and science news, plus: burning questions and expert tips. Among women, the risk of non-melanoma skin cancer rose in tandem with job tenure.

Working at 36,000 feet may come with a medical issue: flight attendants could be at an increased cancer risk compared to those of us who don't fly as often, a new study finds. "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".

"Flight attendants are considered a historically understudied occupational group, so there is a lot we don't know about their health", says Mordukhovich. In Europe, flight attendants' exposure to cosmic ionizing radiation is monitored and limited more by law. The study did not examine the health impact of frequent flying among airline passengers.

Scientists have long suspected that flight attendants' cancer risk might be affected by their exposure to naturally occurring radiation at high altitudes, shift work, time zone changes that disrupt sleep cycles, and poor cabin air quality, researchers note in Environmental Health.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) lists circadian disruption and cosmic radiation as potential cancer causes.

Air crews have the largest average annual effective dose of all radiation-exposed workers in the USA, according to 2009 findings by the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements.

The risk of breast cancer, for instance, was around 50 per cent more for air stewardesses than other women. "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 authors used self-reported data from 5,366 USA 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. (The risk for pilots may be similar, but this study focused specifically on flight attendants.) The Association of Flight Attendants did not provide comment in time for publication. "Similar policies are not in place in the US", Irina Mordukhovich, one of the authors of the study, told Business Insider. "We have known carcinogens that flight crews are exposed to, and we're hoping that this study allows people to start thinking about what should be done to implement protections". They are, for example, less likely to smoke or be overweight, and have lower rates of heart disease. Of those surveyed, 91% were current flight attendants and 9% were former flight attendants.

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