According to a new study, flight attendant’s get certain cancers (like breast and melanoma) more than the general population. Published in the journal Environmental Health, the study “saw the same trend and detected a higher prevalence of every other cancer the researchers examined: Non-melanoma skin cancer, uterine, gastrointestinal, cervical and thyroid cancers were all seen at a higher rate in flight attendants.”1
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Study co-author Irina Mordukhovich, a research associate at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said they also found that there was a higher instance of breast cancer in women with three or more children, something that normally lowers a woman’s risk:
“Women with three or more children are already probably not getting enough sleep. 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.” 2
Although the research didn’t answer why flight attendants report higher cancer numbers, the authors have some ideas:
- The new study compared data on self-reported cancer cases in the Harvard Flight Attendant Health Study with eighty percent of the flight attendants in the study being women (something authors expected in a “feminized” occupation)
- Flight attendants are often exposed to carcinogens like pesticides, fire retardants, jet fuel and other chemicals more frequently than the general population
- They are also exposed to higher levels of cosmic ionizing radiation which the WHO lists as a cancer risk
Mordukhovich and her colleagues were motivated to study flight attendants “because there are gaps in the research on them.” Gaps that might be affecting policies meant to protect them on the job. For instance, in Europe, flight attendants’ exposure to cosmic ionizing radiation is monitored and limited more by law.
Mordukhovich says there isn’t a lot of research on those who fly frequently but logic suggests they face similar exposures. Keep that in mind if you travel frequently and consider other modes of transportation when time allows.