Worrying cancer risk found in flight cabin crew

Female flight Attendants used to illustrate the story

"Our findings of higher rates of several cancers among flight attendants is striking given the low rates of overweight and smoking in our study population, which highlights the question of what can be done to minimize the adverse exposures and cancers common among cabin crew", said Irina Mordukhovich from the Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The FAHS included more than 5,300 flight attendants who were recruited through online and mailed surveys, and given in person at airports.

Why are cancer rates higher in flight attendants?

USA flight attendants may be more likely than other Americans to develop several types of cancer including tumors of the breast, uterus, cervix, thyroid, and skin, new research suggests.

Dr Mordukhovich said: "Our study informs future research priorities regarding the health of this understudied group of workers, who have a wide range of job-related exposures to known and probable carcinogens including cosmic ionizing radiation, circadian rhythm disruption and possible chemical contaminants in the aircraft cabin".

The amount of time in the air clearly matters; working for five years as a flight attendant increased the risk of non-melanoma skin cancers, but was not significantly associated with breast cancer or melanoma skin cancers.

Flight crew have higher than average rates of certain cancers, according to a study of more than 5,000 US-based flight attendants.

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For the first time, researchers also showed cabin crew members have higher rates of non-melanoma skin cancer. The new study compared data on self-reported cancer cases in the Harvard Flight Attendant Health Study, which collects data to help people understand how their job can affect health, with cases tracked in the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, an ongoing study that tracks the health and nutrition of adults and children in the general population.

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

Medical scientists have known about the potential health risks of this career field for some time, yet the results from the small handful of studies focused on the issue have been frustratingly contradictory, especially when it comes to cancer.

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

In fact, it wasn't until 2014 that U.S. flight attendants got protections from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration like other American workers, but even today, those protections are limited, Mordukhovich said. 30 flight hours of exposure to ionizing radiation would equal one chest x-ray, but they spend much less time in the air than a flight crew.

Researchers also couldn't say whether tumors developed before or after participants started working as flight attendants. The study did not examine the health impact of frequent flying among airline passengers.

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