Commercial flight crews show higher cancer rates, study suggests

"We report a higher lifetime prevalence of breast, melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers among flight crews relative to the general population", said Irina Mordukhovich, a researcher at Harvard T H Chan School of Public Health and co-author of a study published Tuesday in the journal Environmental Health.

Other studies have linked shift work and disrupted circadian clocks to higher risk of breast and prostate cancers, possibly due to a reduced ability of DNA to fix itself and the way circadian rhythm processes may be connected to immune function.

A separate study in April involving almost 6,100 USA flight attendants found no meaningful link between cosmic radiation or circadian rhythm disruption and several cancers.

"This is striking given the low rates of overweight and smoking in this occupational group", she said in a statement.

Some 3.4 percent of the women who flew for a living had breast cancer, compared to 2.3 per cent in the general population.

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.

This group of workers hasn't been studied much, despite having clear factors related to increased cancer risk: they are exposed to radiation from the upper atmosphere, constant disruptions in their sleep-wake cycle, and contact with cabin chemicals like pesticides and flame retardants. The authors couldn't link cosmic radiation or circadian rhythm disruptions to breast cancer because they couldn't isolate these two factors.

"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. A large majority, 91 per cent of participants, were or had been cabin crew.

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Unions for flight attendants at Southwest and American airlines identified crew fatigue as a top health issue that needs to be addressed, something the pending FAA reauthorization bill could do with required minimum rest times.

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

The amount of time in the air clearly matters; working for five years as a flight attendant increased the risk of non-melanoma skin cancers, but was not significantly associated with breast cancer or melanoma skin cancers.

While European regulators require monitoring of aircrews' radiation exposure and changes to their work schedules if it exceeds certain thresholds, no such rules exist in the U.S.

One of the most unusual risks is cosmic ionizing radiation (radiation from outer space that penetrates airplanes). And the risk of melanoma rose three times for cabin crew of both sexes. But there are no limitations or regulations in the US on how much exposure is safe for flight attendants.

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. That exposure may not be concerning for people taking individual flights, but for people whose jobs involve flying, that risk may have a negative effect on their health, as the study results suggest.

The study cannot say that being a flight attendant "causes" cancer; it can only make an observation that they seem linked.

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