Flight Attendants May Be Four Times as Likely to Get Cancer, Study Finds

Jul 2, 2018

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A large-scale study of flight attendants has found that they are significantly more likely to get cancer in their lifetimes, and that the prevalence of non-melanoma skin cancer among female flight attendants is more than four times that of the general population of women in the US.

Published last week in the the medical journal Environmental Health, the study relied on data volunteered by 5,300 flight attendants in 2014 and 2015, and on the ongoing Harvard Flight Attendant Health Study, which has collected information on current and former cabin crews since 2007. They compared what they found to the results of the Centers of Disease Control’s 2013 to 2014 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

The results were noticeable: Among the flight attendants, the non-melanoma cancer rates were quadruple that of the general public, melanoma rates were doubled, and FAs were 51% more likely to have breast cancer than the average American woman. (Strangely, the study also found that female flight attendants who’d given birth to three or more children were more likely to have breast cancer, when the opposite is the norm.) The study, led by researcher Eileen McNeely, of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, also found that flight attendants had elevated rates of thyroid, uterine, cervical and gastrointestinal cancers.

The researchers found that the longer a flight attendant worked in the field, the more likely he or she was to be afflicted, more evidence that the cancers are job-related. According to a job site for aviation jobs, the average flight attendant is in the air 65 to 85 hours a month. (By comparison, TPG staff’s most frequent flyer averaged just over 60 hours of flight time a month last year.)

While in the air, an airline crew is subjected to a number of factors that could be responsible for giving them cancer, including carcinogens in jet fuel and fire-retardant materials, unhealthy sleep schedules and ionizing radiation from being so high in the Earth’s atmosphere. The researchers noted that airline cabin crews are exposed to more ionizing radiation per year than any other profession in the US — including more than five times the annual dosage Department of Energy workers receive.

“At a minimum, flight attendants need more education on the risks of radiation exposure, especially during pregnancy, along with the potential dangers of interrupted sleep patterns and job tenure, which the study also suggests could explain the higher-than-expected prevalence of certain cancers,” Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA said in a statement. “We will immediately inform flight attendants of the results in order to raise awareness to improve early cancer detection and treatment.”

The researchers said that they couldn’t weed out extraneous factors that have bedeviled other studies on the subject, such as the flight attendants’ lifestyles outside of work.

Photo by R9_RoNaLdO/Getty Images

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