Flight attendants may have higher cancer rates

Flight attendants may have higher cancer rates

Dr Mordukhovich, of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in the United States, and colleagues found out of the 5,366 U.S. flight attendants surveyed one-in-seven had been diagnosed with cancer.

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 found an association between each five years of time spent working as a flight attendant and non-melanoma skin cancer among women. They are, for example, less likely to smoke or be overweight, and have lower rates of heart disease.

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

Flight attendants may have a higher risk of a number of cancers, a new study finds.

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.

Already the USA flight attendants union released a statement on the study, saying it will "use the results to encourage airlines, airline manufacturers, and regulators to prevent exposures and change working conditions to reduce risk". This includes cancers of the breast, cervix, skin, thyroid and uterus, as well as gastrointestinal system cancers, which include colon, stomach, esophageal, liver and pancreatic cancers.

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Length of service did not appear to be a factor with breast cancer, thyroid cancer or melanoma in all women.

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". A large majority, 91 per cent of participants, were or had been cabin crew. Even when flight attendants reported having stereotypically good health, diet, and exercise regimens, the likelihood that they would be stricken with certain cancers was still higher than the other survey respondents. On average, attendants were 51 years old and had been working in the profession for just over 20 years.

One of the most unusual risks is cosmic ionizing radiation (radiation from outer space that penetrates airplanes). For instance, there are no official limits to the amount of cosmic ionizing radiation flight crews can be exposed to and their exposure is not monitored.

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.

"The specific pattern we are seeing is firstly lung injury - the lung's breathing mechanism is fine, but there are problems getting the oxygen out of the air", said Dr Heutelbeck, adding that there are also a common pattern of symptoms related with neurotoxicity and small fibre nerve damage.

As airline policy changes work to catch up with research, flight attendant and frequent fliers can take steps now to help protect themselves from possible cancer-causing agents.

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.

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