Flight attendants have a higher prevalence of several forms of cancer, including breast cancer, uterine cancer, gastrointestinal cancer, thyroid cancer and cervical cancer, compared with the general public, according to new research.
The large scale study from Harvard University’s TH Chan School of Public Health 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.
“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 minimise the adverse exposures and cancers common among cabin crew,” said Irina Mordukhovich, research fellow at Harvard Chan School.
Over the course of their careers, flight attendants are regularly exposed to several known and probable carcinogens, including cosmic ionising radiation, disrupted sleep cycles and circadian rhythms, and possible chemical contaminants in the airplane. Moreover, cabin crews are exposed to the largest effective annual ionising radiation dose relative to all other US radiation workers because of both their exposure to and lack of protection from cosmic radiation.
The study authors say that despite these known risks, flight attendants have historically been excluded from the legal safety protections typically granted to most other US workers. Limited protections were instituted in 2014, but they don’t include monitoring or regulating radiation exposure.
The new findings, published in the journal Environmental Health, are based on a 2014-2015 survey of 5,366 US flight attendants in which they were asked about self-reported health outcomes and symptoms, work experience, personal characteristics, and aviation employment history.
The findings suggest that additional efforts should be made in the US to minimise the risk of cancer among flight attendants, including monitoring radiation dose and organising schedules to minimise radiation exposure and circadian rhythm disruption, say the authors.
- Eileen McNeely, Irina Mordukhovich and others. Cancer prevalence among flight attendants compared to the general population, Environmental Health, volume 17, number 49, published online 25 June 2018. doi: 10.1186/s12940-018-0396-8