November 18, 2018

Flying and Cancer: Flight Attendants Have Higher Rates of Numerous Cancers

27 June 2018, 03:27 | Silvia Roy

Irina Mordukhovich, a researcher at Harvard T.H. Chan school of public health, said there was a higher lifetime prevalence of breast, melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers among flight crews relative to the general population.

Flight crews are routinely exposed to known and probable carcinogens, including cosmic radiation from space, circadian rhythm disruption, and possible chemical contaminants.

Flight attendants had higher rates of all cancers investigated.

The authors found an association between each five years of time spent working as a flight attendant and non-melanoma skin cancer among women.

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

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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.

But time served was associated with a higher risk of breast cancer in women who never had children and women who had three or more children, researchers said.

The Harvard University scientists behind the work came to their conclusion by examining data from more than 5,300 US-based flight attendants who filled out an online survey between December 2014 and June 2015 as part of the larger "Harvard Flight Attendant Health Study".

"Flight attendants are considered a historically understudied occupational group, so there is a lot we don't know about their health", says Mordukhovich. Data showed a higher prevalence of breast, uterine, thyroid, gastrointestinal and cervical cancers among cabin crew members.

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.

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Nearly every commercial flight begins with a member of the cabin crew delivering a spiel to passengers about inflight safety.

Unions for flight attendants at Southwest and American airlines identified crew fatigue as a top health issue that needs to be addressed, something the pending FAA reauthorization bill could do with required minimum rest times. 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. And the risk of melanoma rose three times for cabin crew of both sexes. The association also noted that the United States federal government now does not require airlines to educate cabin crews about onboard radiation exposure, or to offer additional protections from radiation-including for pregnant 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.

But she noted that higher rates of breast cancer among female flight attendants might be due to the fact that they had fewer children and gave birth for the first time later in life than other women. The study did not examine the health impact of frequent flying among airline passengers.

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