Why cancer rates are higher in flight attendants

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RESEARCHERS found that women and men on U.S. cabin crews have higher rates of many types of cancer, compared with the general population. 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.
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.
One of those carcinogens is cosmic ionizing radiation, which is elevated at higher altitudes, Mordukhovich told Live Science. This type of radiation is particularly damaging to DNA and is a known cause of breast cancer and nonmelanoma skin cancer, she said. Air cabin crews receive the highest yearly dose of ionizing radiation on the job of all U.S. workers, she added.
In the new study, the researchers looked at data from more than 5,300 flight attendants from different airlines who completed an online survey as part of the Harvard Flight Attendant Health Study. The analysis looked at the cancer rates in these flight attendants compared to a group of about 2,700 people who had a similar income and educational status but were not flight attendants.
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. In addition, melanoma rates were more than two times higher and nonmelanoma skin cancer rates were about four times higher in female flight attendants compared with women from the general population. (Nonmelanoma skin cancers include basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas.)
These elevated cancer rates were observed despite indications of good-health behaviors, such as low levels of smoking and obesity, in the flight-attendant group as a whole, the study authors said.
Cancer rates in male flight attendants were nearly 50 percent higher for melanoma and about 10 percent higher for nonmelanoma skin cancers compared with men from the general population group, according to the findings.
The potential cancer risks for flight attendants are not limited to cosmic ionizing radiation.

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