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Flight Attendants at Higher Risk for Many Types of Cancer

Researchers think it could be due to carcinogen exposure
By Evann Gastaldo,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 27, 2018 6:00 PM CDT
   (Getty Images / Mutlu Kurtbas)

(Newser) – Unfortunate news for flight attendants: A new study finds that they suffer from higher rates of many types of cancer than the general population. The researchers compared data from more than 5,300 flight attendants who completed a health survey to about 2,700 non-flight-attendants with similar income and educational status, LiveScience reports. Among their most striking findings: Female flight attendants had rates of breast cancer about 50% higher than women who weren't flight attendants; they also had melanoma rates more than two times higher and non-melanoma skin cancer rates about four times higher. And male flight attendants had melanoma rates of almost 50% higher than the general population of males and non-melanoma skin cancer rates of about 10% higher. Air cabin crew members were also found to have higher rates of cancers of the cervix, thyroid, and uterus, as well as gastrointestinal system cancers including colon, stomach, esophageal, liver, and pancreatic cancers.

This despite the fact that the flight attendant group had, as a whole, indications of healthy behaviors including low levels of smoking and obesity. The researchers point out several possible reasons for the increased cancer risk: Flight attendants are exposed to many known and potential carcinogens, including the US' highest on-the-job dose of cosmic ionizing radiation, which is known to cause breast cancer and skin cancer. As Time explains, cosmic radiation originates in space, but small amounts make it to earth and exposure is more likely at higher altitudes. Cabin crew members are also regularly exposed to UV radiation and chemical contaminants from engine leakages, flame retardants, and more. Their circadian rhythms can be disrupted by jet lag, and such disruptions have also been linked to an increased risk of cancer. Researchers say pilots and frequent flyers may be at similar risk for the same reasons. (Here are five things airline workers would tell you if they could.)

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