Commercial flight crews show higher cancer rates

Tais Policanti—Getty Images

The study, one of the largest and most comprehensive analyses of cancer among cabin crew members conducted to date, is the first to show that flight attendants in the US also have a higher rate of non-melanoma skin cancer than the general population.

Among female flight attendants, the rate of breast cancer was 50% higher when compared to the general population. Rates among flight attendants were especially high for breast, uterine, cervical, gastrointestinal, and thyroid cancer.

Dr Mordukhovich, of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in the United States, and colleagues found out of the 5,366 USA flight attendants surveyed one-in-seven had been diagnosed with cancer. Researchers worringly concluded that flight attendants had a more than quadruple chance of developing other forms of skin cancer compared to the control group.

Typically, the more children a woman has, the lower her risk of breast cancer.

"Neither OSHA nor the FAA require airlines to educate flight attendants about onboard radiation exposure or offer protections during pregnancy, cabin air can be contaminated, and cabin crew fatigue is prevalent", Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said in a statement.

The study says that flight attendants are a unique group in that they work in an environment where they are exposed "several known and probable carcinogens" in the aircraft cabin.

The findings suggest that additional efforts should be made in the U.S.to minimize the risk of cancer among flight attendants, including monitoring radiation doses and organizing schedules to minimize radiation exposure and circadian rhythm disruption, according to the researchers.

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However, according to Reuters, flight attendants are still less likely to die of all causes (except from a plane crash) than the general population.

Other chemical contaminants found in the cabin may include engine leakages, pesticides and flame retardants, which contain compounds that may act as hormone disruptors and increase the risk of some cancers, Mordukhovich said.

As reported in the journal Environmental Health, study leader Eileen McNeely and team analysed a survey involving 5,366 United States. flight attendants that was conducted between 2014 and 2015.

The survey used validated questions from the Job Content Questionnaire and the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). Cabin crew members are also regularly exposed to more UV radiation than the general population, which can make these workers more vulnerable to skin cancers, Mordukhovich said.

The study cannot prove what causes this increase, but the authors said increased exposure to ionising radiation from time spent in the thinner upper atmosphere as well as disrupted sleep and meal cycles could be factors.

One of those carcinogens is cosmic ionizing radiation, which is elevated at higher altitudes, Mordukhovich told Live Science. And the risk of melanoma rose three times for cabin crew of both sexes.

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.

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