Commercial flight crews show higher cancer rates

There is a higher risk of breast cancer in women never had children and women who had three or more children, according to the study. Poor cabin air quality and high levels of second-hand tobacco smoke before in-flight smoking bans were implemented may also contribute to cancer risk.

This was compared with data from 23,729 men and women with similar economic status who participated in the National Health and Nutrition Examination survey during the same years. Of those surveyed, 91% were current flight attendants and 9% were former flight attendants.

However, it's also possible that there are factors unrelated to flight attendants' jobs, said Dr. Paolo Boffetta, a professor of oncology and environmental medicine at Mount Sinai's Icahn School of Medicine, in New York City.

Male flight attendants were found to have higher rates of skin cancer - 1.2% and 3.2% for melanoma and non-melanoma cancer, respectively, compared with 0.69% and 2.9% for the adult population as a whole.

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"Flight attendants are considered a historically understudied occupational group, so there is a lot we don't know about their health", says Mordukhovich.

This is because they fly more northerly routes where exposure to cosmic radiation is highest. During their in-flight time in the upper atmosphere, they aren't shielded from that radiation by 35,000 feet of air, as they are on the ground. This type of radiation is particularly damaging to DNA and is a known cause of breast cancer and nonmelanoma skin cancer, she said. In general, though, airplane cabin crews are exposed more regularly to ultra-violet cosmic radiation than the average person-at higher altitudes, cosmic radiation goes through less atmospheric filtering. They've always been aware their occupation may be linked to increased cancer risks.

The researchers revealed flight crew are more likely to develop many cancers than the general population, including breast, uterine, cervical, gastrointestinal and thyroid cancers. This news stands out partly because flight attendants avoid many other common risk factors for cancer, like smoking and obesity.

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.

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This study is limited in a few ways: it used self-reported health information and only evaluates one point in time.

The Harvard Flight Attendant Health Study (FAHS), begun in 2007, addresses some of the gaps in understanding health risks among flight attendants. And yet, for the attendants themselves, the job is particularly risky when considering the cancer risks.

What about customers who are frequent fliers? But there are no limitations or regulations in the US on how much exposure is safe for flight attendants.

The association also noted that the United States federal government now does not require airlines to educate cabin crews about onboard radiation exposure, or to offer additional protections from radiation-including for pregnant flight attendants.

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