Flight crew have higher rates of some cancers, study finds

It was one of the most extensive analyses of its kind and scientists described the findings as particularly alarming owing to their healthy lifestyles. They are, for example, less likely to smoke or be overweight, and have lower rates of heart disease.

How can cancer risks be minimized in flight attendants? Their results were published Monday in the journal Environmental Health.

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.

The study also revealed for the first time a higher rate of non-melanoma skin cancers, such as basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas, among flight attendants.

Some 3.4% of the women who flew for a living had breast cancer, compared with 2.3% in the general population.

"Flight attendants are considered a historically understudied occupational group, so there is a lot we don't know about their health", says Mordukhovich. The authors couldn't link cosmic radiation or circadian rhythm disruptions to breast cancer because they couldn't isolate these two factors.

Having three or more children-or none at all-was also a risk factor for breast cancer in female flight attendants.

"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. "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.

Male flight attendants were found to have higher rates of skin cancer 1.2 and 3.2 percent for melanoma and non-melanoma cancer, respectively, compared to 0.69 and 2.9 per cent for the adult population as a whole.

Flight crews have higher than average rates of certain cancers, according to a study of more than 5,000 US-based flight attendants. A large majority, 91 per cent of participants, were or had been cabin crew. (Other radiation workers have certain occupational safety regulations in place to protect them from exposure and restrict risky exposure.) The European Union regulates flight attendant schedules and flying time of pregnant flight attendants to limit potentially unsafe exposures. On average, attendants were 51 years old and had been working in the profession for just over 20 years.

The survey used validated questions from the Job Content Questionnaire and the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).

Air cabin crews receive the highest yearly dose of ionizing radiation on the job of all US workers, she added.

Long-haul trips which disrupt the body clock and affect hormone levels are additional risks.

One of the most unusual risks is cosmic ionizing radiation (radiation from outer space that penetrates airplanes).

Although it's still not a proven link, the researchers writing in Environmental Health think USA airlines could do more to protect flight attendants from the perils of radiation and abnormal sleep patterns.

And at the end of last year, the London Economic also spoke to Dr Astrid Heutelbeck who has spent the past few years attending to patients suffering pulmonary, neurological and cerebral symptoms after flights with suspected cabin air contamination at the University of Gottingen, Germany.

Dr Heutelbeck has also been treating passengers who are frequent flyers as well.