Published: Thu, June 28, 2018
Health Care | By Edgar Pierce

US Flight Crew Have Higher Cancer Rates Compared to the General Population

US Flight Crew Have Higher Cancer Rates Compared to the General Population

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

While these results confirm earlier research linking work as a flight attendant to an increased risk of certain cancers - especially breast and skin malignancies - the study wasn't created to prove whether or how the job might directly cause tumors. Moreover, the prevalence of uterine, non-melanoma skin cancer, cervical, thyroid and gastrointestinal cancers was also seen to be common and at a higher rate among flight attendants. The study is the first to have looked at all types of cancer including breast, uterus, cervix, thyroid and skin cancer.

Researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, US found that out of the 5,366 flight attendants who participated in this study, slightly over 15% reported ever having been diagnosed with cancer. They are, for example, less likely to smoke or be overweight, and have lower rates of heart disease.

Cabin crew members are regularly exposed to known cancer-causing factors such as cosmic ionizing radiation, sleep cycle and circadian rhythm disruption, as well as potential contaminants within the plane. Melanoma rates were just over 200% higher and non-melanoma skin cancer rates were about 300% higher.Male flight attendants, meanwhile, were about 50% more likely to suffer from melanoma and 10% more likely to have non-melanoma skin cancer.

Although these risk factors are known, cabin crews have not previously been included in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration protections that usually help safeguard workers in the U.S. In 2014, some protections were introduced; however, these do not involve the monitoring or regulation of exposure to radiation.

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.

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

"But we were surprised to replicate a recent finding that exposure to work as a flight attendant was related to breast cancer exclusively among women with three or more children", she said.

The US, according to the study authors, needs to catch up to the European Union (EU), which employs protections for their flight attendants.

The study, published in the journal Environmental Health, suggested some but not all of the increased incidence was linked to the time spent in the job - meaning doing it for less than five years raises the risk. "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. These flight attendants then answered the questions related to their flight routines and possible cancer diagnoses.

Female flight staff had an average of 51% more likely to develop breast cancer.

While cosmic radiation originates in outer space, small amounts reach the earth, and greater chances of exposure occur at higher altitudes. For example, the flight staff participants tended to be older than control subjects and a larger proportion were women. The study did not examine the health impact of frequent flying among airline passengers.

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