Published: Thu, June 28, 2018
Medicine | By Melba Vasquez

Flight attendants exposed to greater risk of cancers

Flight attendants exposed to greater risk of cancers

People who work on US flight crews have higher rates of certain types of cancer, according to a new study out of Harvard.

The results showed that flight attendants had a higher prevalence of every cancer that was examined, especially breast cancer, melanoma, and non-melanoma skin cancer among females, confirming multiple US and European studies.

This includes breast (3.4% of flight crew compared with 2.3% in the general population), uterine (0.15% compared with 0.13%), cervical (1.0% compared with 0.70%), gastrointestinal (0.47% compared with 0.27%), and thyroid (0.67% compared with 0.56%) cancers.

"At work most of the things are decided for you", said Irina Mordukhovich, a research fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the study's corresponding author.

The researchers found that in female flight attendants, the rates of breast cancer were about 50 percent higher than in women from the general population. The authors said the results were "striking" given the low rates of overweight and smoking flight attendants.

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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.

The researchers began studying flight attendants' health more than a decade ago, when they launched the Harvard Flight Attendant Health Study (FAHS).

Previous studies also recorded a higher cancer risk in cabin crew.

In all, 5,366 attendants working on domestic and global flights in the U.S. were examined.

Dr Mordukhovich said: "Nulliparity is a known risk factor for breast cancer 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".

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Flight attendants are often exposed to possible or probable carcinogens like pesticides, fire retardants, jet fuel and other chemicals more frequently than the general population. What makes cabin crew vulnerable to developing cancer? The flight attendants answered questions about their flight schedules, as well as any diagnoses of cancer. The current study used information from the 2014 to 2015 survey and compared it to health outcomes from 2,729 control subjects who were matched for socioeconomic status.

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.

The authors used self-reported data from 5,366 United States 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 sample group was more than 80 percent female and had an average tenure of 20 years, with 91 percent actively employed.

While cosmic radiation originates in outer space, small amounts reach the earth, and greater chances of exposure occur at higher altitudes. And the risk of melanoma rose three times for cabin crew of both sexes.

The study was only based on the health impact the cabin crew had due to their profession and not on the airline passengers.

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