A study of more than 5,000 US flight attendants has shown they have higher rates of certain cancers than the general public. The most striking thing is that this happens even though there are small percentages of overweight and smokers in this professional group, "said Mordukovic".
The study, which was conducted by researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, Massachusetts, surveyed 5,366 USA 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.
This study surveyed more than 5,300 flight attendants (80% were female), and compared them to around 2,700 people who had similar income and educational status but worked on the ground, as part of the Harvard Flight Attendant Health Study.
Other chemical contaminants found in the cabin may include engine leakages, pesticides and flame retardants, which contain compounds that may act as hormone disruptors and increase the risk of some cancers, Mordukhovich said.
"Combine that with this disruption from the job, especially for those who fly internationally, this may be an indication that the circadian rhythm disruption is having an impact", Mordukhovich added. This news stands out partly because flight attendants avoid many other common risk factors for cancer, like smoking and obesity.
Mordukhovich said she and her colleagues were motivated to study flight attendants because there are gaps in the research on them, and that could mean gaps in the policies meant to protect them on the job, at least in the United States.
Irina Mordukhovich, a researcher at Harvard T.H. Chan school of public health, said there was a higher lifetime prevalence of breast, melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers among flight crews relative to the general population.
Other studies have linked shift work and disrupted circadian clocks to higher risk of breast and prostate cancers, possibly due to a reduced ability of DNA to fix itself and the way circadian rhythm processes may be connected to immune function.
There is sparse literature on this topic, and future research is needed to evaluate the association between in-flight exposures and cancer among the cabin crew, monitoring their exposure to ionizing radiation, and figuring out ways to minimize this exposure.
However, according to Reuters, flight attendants are still less likely to die of all causes (except from a plane crash) than the general population. Those data were then compared to surveys filled out by 2,700 other Americans with similar levels of education and income, but working in other sectors. Participants had an average age of 51 and had been in the profession for just over 20 years.
In Europe, flight attendants' exposure to cosmic ionizing radiation is monitored and limited more by law. And the risk of melanoma rose three times for cabin crew of both sexes.
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Among women crew members, the rates of breast (3.4 percent of flight crew vs 2.3 percent in the general population), uterine (0.15 vs 0.13), cervical (1.0 vs 0.70), gastrointestinal (0.47 vs 0.27), and thyroid (0.67 vs 0.56) cancers were only slightly elevated compared with controls, yet statistical analyses indicated that this pattern was very unlikely due to random chance.