Compared to people who work in other professions, flight attendants have higher rates of many cancers due to the nature of their work. Conducted by the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, a new research offered a closer look at the “understudied occupational group.”
The study titled “Cancer prevalence among flight attendants compared to the general population” was published in the journal Environmental Health on June 26.
Researchers studied data from the Harvard Flight Attendant Health Study (FAHS), including over 5,300 participants, to quantify the associated health risks of the job. Eighty percent of the flight attendants in the study were women, the researchers stated.
Among the female attendants, the rate of breast cancer was nearly 50 percent higher compared to women from the general population. A higher instance was observed in women with three or more children.
“Women with three or more children are already probably not getting enough sleep,” said co-author and research associate Irina Mordukhovich. “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.”
The researchers found a higher prevalence of several cancers such as melanoma, thyroid, uterine, cervical etc. among them. In addition, this was the first study to reveal a higher rate of non-melanoma skin cancers among flight attendants compared to the general population.
The figures were concerning given “the low rates of overweight and smoking among flight attendants in our study population,” the authors wrote, “which we take to be indicators of general health and healthy behaviors, as well as being independent risk factors for some cancers.”
However, there are a number of aspects that can explain this heightened risk of health problems. The job may come with an increased exposure to chemicals like pesticides, fire retardants, and jet fuel, for instance.
Flight crew members have to deal with the regular disruption of their sleep schedules, especially if they pass through different time zones. Known as work shift disorder, the irregular schedule can result in both physical and mental health problems.
Attendants and pilots are often exposed to “high radiation levels because of cosmic radiation at altitude,” as noted by Mordukhovich. While the radiation makes no difference to most passengers, the frequent traveling for members of the crew may potentially be carcinogenic.
“We have known carcinogens that flight crews are exposed to, and we’re hoping that this study allows people to start thinking about what should be done to implement protections,” she added.
Some of the limitations of the study included the use of self-reported data and lack of conclusions on causality. The authors also suggested that flight attendants with health problems were possibly more likely to take part in the study, leading to detection bias.