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Are frequent flyers seriously risking their health?

A new study has revealed that flight attendants may be more likely than the average person to develop several types of cancer.



The US study asked 5,366 American flight attendants and 2,729 other adults with similar socioeconomic backgrounds if they had ever had cancer, and the results showed that cabin crewmembers could be at greater risk of tumors of the breast, uterus, cervix, thyroid and skin.


“This study is the first to show higher prevalences of all cancers studied, and significantly higher prevalences of non-melanoma skin cancer compared to a similarly matched US sample population,” said Eileen McNeely, head researcher of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston.


According to Reuters Health, flight attendants in the study were revealed to be 51% more likely to develop breast cancer compared to other adults, while they had more than double the risk of melanoma and more than quadruple the risk of developing other skin cancers.


“Non-melanoma skin cancer among women increased with more years on the job, suggesting a work-related association,” McNeely told Reuters.


But Environmental Health researchers suggest the findings shouldn’t be that surprising, as flight attendants are exposed to naturally occurring radiation at altitude, as well as other factors like shift work, jet lag and poor cabin air quality.


Despite this worrying report, cabin crewmembers are apparently generally healthy.


“They are comparatively healthy and wealthy, and more likely to seek medical care than the general population,” University of Otago Wellington occupational and aviation medicine program director Rob Griffiths told Reuters, independently of the study.


“So cancer detection incidence is higher and mortality is lower, because they participate in screening programs and get treated faster.”


Dr Lynne Pinkerton of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in Ohio, who authored an April 2018 study on cabin crew health, said that although their study showed no strong link between cosmic radiation or sleep disruptions to several cancers, the connection could still exist.


But she pointed to lifestyle-related causes for higher incidents of breast cancer such as female flight attendants having fewer children and later in life.


Likewise, higher skin cancer rates could also be attributed to the lifestyles of cabin crew, who might spend more time in the sun during layovers.


Written by: Mark Harada
Published: 26 June 2018

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