Posted by Leanne Kodsman on
Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health have recently published findings from their groundbreaking study that began in 2007, looking at the rate of cancer and disease among flight attendants as compared to the general population.
In general, flight attendants are exposed to a range of job-related risk factors that are known carcinogens, but this tends to be an occupational group for which there is little overall research. The Harvard Flight Attendant Health Study is changing this, with a study that began in 2007 - their latest report looking at the prevalence of cancer diagnoses among flight attendants as compared to the general population has been published in the journal Environmental Health.
High Flyers have Higher Cancer Rates
The research included the voluntary participation of thousands of flight attendants. The participants reported on their schedules, cancer diagnoses, and other lifestyle and illness questions. These responses were then compared to a matched group of people (who did not work in the airline profession) from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).
The researchers found that flight attendants as a group show higher rates of many different types of cancer as compared to the general population. These include breast cancer, melanoma, uterine cancer, gastrointestinal cancer, thyroid cancer, and cervical cancer, as well as non-melanoma skin cancers like basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas.
The difference in cancer rates between flight attendants and the general population were especially notable for breast, melanoma, and non-melanoma cancers, with flight attendants demonstrating a 51% higher rate of breast cancer, 2x higher rate of melanoma, and 4x higher rate of non-melanoma skin cancers when compared to people in other (non-airline) professions.
Potential Risk Factors
There hasn't been a significant amount of research up to now on flight attendants as a group, so there isn't a lot known about their health. In general, flight attendants tend to show more positive, traditionally-healthy benchmarks like lower rates of smoking, obesity, and heart disease. This makes the findings especially concerning, and researchers hope to continue their studies to identify problematic exposures and how to better protect airline professionals.
Flight crews are known to be exposed to the highest annual dose of radiation among US radiation workers (according to the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements). They are also likely to have disrupted sleep schedules due to the crossing of time zones and shift work, which is known to disrupt the circadian wake-sleep cycle - a risk factor that previous studies have lined to higher risk of breast and prostate cancers.
The European Union already regulates both flight attendant schedules and the amount of time pregnant flight attendants spend flying to limit potentially dangerous exposure. More research is needed to confirm how much of the increased risk can be directly tied to work conditions and how to best minimize the adverse exposures and cancers common among cabin crew.
Further Reading & References:
Cancer prevalence among flight attendants compared to the general population. Eileen McNeely, Irina Mordukhovich, Steven Staffa, Samuel Tideman, Sara Gale and Brent Coull. Environmental Health. Published 26 June 2018. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12940-018-0396-8
Flight Attendant Health Study. Harvard School of Public Health. https://www.fahealth.org
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