Monday, 16 July, 2018

Why flight attendants are at high risk of cancer?

Tais Policanti—Getty Images Tais Policanti—Getty Images
Anna Jefferson | 28 June, 2018, 20:44

The Harvard University study, described as one of the largest and most comprehensive on the subject to date, found that flight attendants had a higher prevalence of each of the seven broad cancer types examined, particularly breast cancer, melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers among females.

These included those of the breast (3.4% against 2.3%), womb (0.15% against 0.13%), cervix (1% compared to 0.7%), gastrointestines (0.47% compared to 0.27%) and thyroid (0.67% compared to 0.56%).

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. The most striking thing is that this happens even though there are small percentages of overweight and smokers in this professional group, "said Mordukovic". This news stands out partly because flight attendants avoid many other common risk factors for cancer, like smoking and obesity.

The study looked at past occurrence of cancers in flight attendants rather than their risk of developing cancer and its authors cautioned against drawing any conclusions about specific causes.

"Something that somewhat surprised us, to some extent, was that we also saw a higher instance of breast cancer in women with three or more children", Mordukhovich said, adding that flight attendants with three or more children possibly do not get enough sleep.

The cabin crew of a flight are routinely exposed to known and suspected cosmic ionizing radiation, a kind of carcinogen, which is found at an increased level at higher altitudes. In fact, it wasn't until 2014 that United States flight attendants got protections from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration like other American workers, but even today, those protections are limited, Mordukhovich said.

The authors recommend that further efforts be made in the USA to limit cancer risk among this work population such as radiation dose monitoring and the implementation of schedules that will lower exposure to radiation and prevent the disruption of circadian rhythms.

A flight attendant speaks to a captain.

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The research does not answer why flight attendants report higher cancer numbers, but the authors have some ideas, based on earlier research.

The job's hectic schedule, which disrupts a person's daily sleep-wake cycle, can be linked to an increased cancer risk, studies have shown.

Their ongoing research project, called the Harvard Flight Attendant Health Study (FAHS), began collecting self-reported medical data from 5,366 flight attendants in 2007.

Compared to the other adults, flight attendants were 51 percent more likely to develop breast cancer.

This was compared to data from 23,729 men and women with similar economic status who participated in the National Health and Nutrition Examination survey during the same years.

The authors found an association between each five-year increase in time spent working as a flight attendant and non-melanoma skin cancer among women. And the risk of melanoma rose three times for cabin crew of both sexes.

Unions for flight attendants at Southwest and American airlines identified crew fatigue as a top health issue that needs to be addressed, something the pending Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill could do with required minimum rest times.

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