Commercial flight crews show higher cancer rates

Cabin crew are much more likely to develop cancer, according to new research. Eighty percent of the flight attendants in the study were women, as would be expected, the authors said, in a "feminized" occupation.

Mordukhovich says that the results need to be repeated by other groups to confirm the risk, but the data should raise concerns about the risk of cancer for flight attendants.

It was one of the most extensive analyses of its kind and scientists described the findings as particularly alarming owing to their healthy lifestyles.

"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".

The study, which was conducted by researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, Massachusetts, surveyed 5,366 US flight crew members and found that slightly over 15 per cent of them reported having been diagnosed with cancer.

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In all, 5,366 attendants working on domestic and worldwide flights in the USA were examined. 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. "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. Fiering, who was not involved in the study but conducts research on flight attendants, said he found the higher rates of melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer among women in the study "striking" - "especially to see a close to four-fold increase in non-melanoma skin cancer; that is substantial", he said.

This study surveyed more than 5,300 flight attendants (80% were female), and compared them to around 2,700 people who had similar income and educational status but worked on the ground, as part of the Harvard Flight Attendant Health Study.

One possible explanation for these increased rates is that flight attendants are exposed to a lot of known and potential carcinogens, or cancer-causing agents, within their work environment, said lead study author Irina Mordukhovich, a research associate at Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health. A large majority, 91 per cent of participants, were or had been cabin crew.

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. On average, attendants were 51 years old and had been working in the profession for just over 20 years. This news stands out partly because flight attendants avoid many other common risk factors for cancer, like smoking and obesity.

At high altitudes, where the air is thinner and provides less of a shield, passengers and crew can be exposed to between 100 and 300 times the cosmic radiation dose they receive at sea level.

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