Medicine

Commercial flight crews show higher cancer rates, study suggests

Commercial flight crews show higher cancer rates, study suggests

The study, which was conducted by researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, Massachusetts, surveyed 5,366 US flight crew members and found that slightly over 15 per cent of them reported having been diagnosed with cancer.

Having three or more children-or none at all-was also a risk factor for breast cancer in female flight attendants.

Researchers asked 5,366 flight attendants and 2,729 other adults with similar socioeconomic backgrounds whether they had ever been diagnosed with cancer.

Dr Mordukhovich said: "Our study informs future research priorities regarding the health of this understudied group of workers, who have a wide range of job-related exposures to known and probable carcinogens including cosmic ionizing radiation, circadian rhythm disruption and possible chemical contaminants in the aircraft cabin". Flight attendants had a 51% higher prevalence of breast cancers, more than two-fold higher prevalence of melanoma and four-fold greater prevalence of non melanoma skin cancers, compared to people not in the profession. 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.

Irina Mordukhovich, corresponding author of the study, said the research is one of "the largest and most comprehensive studies of cancer among cabin crew to date".

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. Not having children is a known risk factor for the disease in women, but the researchers were surprised to see increased rates in those with multiple kids.

The Harvard Flight Attendant Health Study (FAHS), begun in 2007, addresses some of the gaps in understanding health risks among flight attendants.

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The prevalence of breast, melanoma and non-melanoma cancers were especially striking, says Mordukhovich.

"This may due to combined sources of circadian rhythm disruption - that is sleep deprivation and irregular schedules - both at home and work".

The Harvard University scientists behind the work came to their conclusion by examining data from more than 5,300 US-based flight attendants who filled out an online survey between December 2014 and June 2015 as part of the larger "Harvard Flight Attendant Health Study".

This was compared to 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.

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. 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.

British experts have estimated airline crews receive a higher dose of radiation over a year than workers in the nuclear industry.

But there are no limitations or regulations in the US on how much exposure is safe for flight attendants.


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