A US study has found flight attendants are more likely to develop a range of cancers, including melanoma, breast cancer, and uterine cancer. Published in Environmental Health, the study examined the frequency of cancer diagnoses among cabin crew in comparison to the general population.
The study’s authors discovered that the length of time an employee spent working as a cabin crew member positively related to non-melanoma skin cancer among females, and job tenure was also linked to melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers among males. There was also an association between job tenure and breast cancer among women with three or more children, which is consistent with previous studies on the subject.
Flight attendants are continuously exposed to known and probable carcinogens while at work. These include cosmic ionising radiation at flight altitude (linked to cancer and reproductive issues), poor quality cabin air, and second-hand tobacco smoke (which many flight attendants were exposed to before in-flight smoking bans came into effect). Flight attendants also experience circadian rhythm disruption due to irregular schedules and crossing time zones.
Exposure to cosmic radiation and working during sleeping hours can be risk factors for breast cancer. A recent NIOSH study in the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health investigated whether there is a relationship between breast cancer and the types of conditions that flight attendants work under. Researchers found that these factors and environments could not be linked to an increased risk of breast cancer among flight attendants, except among those employees who had given birth three or more times. However, this subset of women made up a small percentage of the total study group, and so more research must be carried out to confirm these findings.
A previous study carried out by the same researchers found that flight attendants were generally more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer than other women. This was linked to having children later in life, and giving birth fewer times. These factors are known to be linked to a higher risk of breast cancer.
Flight attendants are a very understudied group, and were excluded from Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) protections until 2014. After this time, regulations and protections (such as those relating to blood-borne pathogens) were introduced. Currently, flight attendants’ exposure to ionising radiation is not monitored or regulated, even though cabin crew are exposed to the largest average annual dose of all U.S. radiation workers. However, scientists at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) are currently studying these exposures (as well as other occupational risks) in the order to prevent ill-health.