A new study which was published on 26 June in Environmental Health shows that flight attendants have an increased risk of developing different types of cancer compared to the general public’s risks.
The study shows that women and men on U.S. cabin crews are exposed to potential carcinogens, and factors like time-zone changes and shift work can disrupt their sleep cycles and contribute to the development of cancer.
Researchers asked 5,366 flight attendants and 2,729 adults with similar socioeconomic backgrounds if they have been diagnosed with cancer between 2007 and 2015.
Compared to the 2,729 adults, flight attendants had 51% higher risks of developing breast cancer, the risk of developing melanoma was doubled, and the risk of other forms of skin cancer increased by four times.
Eileen McNeely, the lead author of the study (Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston), stated about the study that it’s the “first to show higher prevalences of all cancers studied, and significantly higher prevalences of non-melanoma skin cancer compared to a similarly matched U.S. sample population.”
The differences between the flight attendants’ risk of cancer and the other adults are “striking,” said the authors of the study, because the flight attendants in the study had a low rate of obesity or smoking.
Male flight attendants were more likely to have melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers.
What Increases the Rates of Cancer?
The study didn’t have an answer for why flight attendants have an increased risk of cancer, but the authors provided some theories.
One of the factors is cosmic radiation which can be found at high altitudes. Constant exposure to it can negatively impact one’s health.
Chemicals inside the cabin like engine leakages, pesticides or flame retardants can increase the risk of some cancers. Second-hand smoking can also increase the risk.
The authors explain that “the long-term health effects of this mix of occupational exposures, including with regard to cancers which develop over the course of many years, have not been well characterized.”
The regular circadian wake-sleep cycle is also disrupted by crossing time zones. Breast cancer and prostate cancer have been linked with disrupted sleep cycles.
Some of the recommendations from the authors are to monitor radiation doses (as done in Europe) and to protect flight attendants from known carcinogens.
Andre Blair s is the lead editor for Advocator.ca. He holds a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Toronto, and a Master of Science in Public Health (M.S.P.H.) from the School of Public Health, Department of Health Administration, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Andre specializes in environmental health, but writes on a variety of issues.