Working as a flight attendant may increase the risk for cancer.
Flight attendants are exposed to several factors known to increase cancer risk, including disrupted sleep patterns and exposure to the increased levels of cosmic ionizing radiation at high altitudes.
A new study, in Environmental Health, used health and behavioral data on 5,366 flight attendants, 91 percent currently working and the rest former flight attendants. They had worked for an average of 20 years, and 80 percent were women. The researchers compared their cancer incidence to that of 2,729 people with similar age, income and education who were involved in a separate, larger national health study.
Compared with the controls, flight attendants had increased rates of breast, uterine, cervical, gastrointestinal, skin and thyroid cancers. In women, the rate of breast cancer among flight attendants was 50 percent higher, and the rate of non-melanoma skin cancer was more than four times as high as in the control group.
A co-author, Irina Mordukhovich, who is a research associate at Harvard, said that the findings say nothing about passengers’ risks, and in any case an observational study like this cannot establish cause and effect.
till, she said, “Flight crews have a unique mix of exposures, including disrupted circadian rhythms and exposure to possibly carcinogenic contaminants — insecticides, flame retardants, jet fuel. And ionizing radiation levels, although low, can be cumulative over time.”