Cancer risk in the air

Flight attendants have a higher radiation exposure risk than other people...
03 July 2018

Interview with 

Irina Mordukhovich - Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health


They look after us on countless flights, fulfilling our demands for tea and sandwiches. But it turns out that being a flight attendant is not without its risks. A new study has found that flight attendants have a much higher cancer risk than the general public, in part due to dangerous radiation that comes in from space. To learn more, Adam Murphy spoke with Irina Mordukhovich...

Irina - We found higher rates of breast cancer, melanoma and nonmelanoma skin cancers among flight attendants, and we also found higher rates of other cancers. The estimates were less precise and the number of cancers in our study was also lower for those cancers. So I would say our main findings are for breast cancer, melanoma and nonmelanoma skin cancer, but we were also interested to see that other cancers that we looked at were present at higher rates as well. Those were uterine, cervical, grouped gastrointestinal cancers, and thyroid cancer.

Adam - How did you go about finding that?

Irina - The cancers were self-reported by the study participants. We have a study that’s been going since 2007 called “The Flight Attendant Health Study,” and the goal of the study is to track flight attendant health in relation to their work and to track their health over time. This study that we’re reporting here is from the 2014/2015 wave of the study and we recruited 5,300 flight attendants and we asked them about their work history, their health history, their work exposures, and different personal characteristics.

Adam - So how much more likely were flight attendants to suffer from these cancers than the general population?

Irina - It depends on the cancer. For breast cancer it was about 50 percent higher taking into account age, and for the skin cancers it was between three and four times higher actually, so the skin cancers were much higher.

Adam - What might have caused these cancers to develop in flight attendants instead of in other people?

Irina - We don’t know for sure. We have some ideas. In terms of the work factors that could be related to cancer in flight attendants there are a number that we know about. One of them is cosmic ionising radiation; that’s probably the main one that we’re concerned about. It’s ionising radiation that comes from outer space and by the time it reaches ground level it’s at very low levels, but at altitude it’s much higher and so flight attendants and pilots are actually considered to be radiation workers. In the US there the most highly exposed radiation workers relative to any other occupation. Currently, there aren’t any protections in place. In the European Union and in a few other countries flight attendant schedules are changed to minimise their exposure to ionising radiation, and that’s not the case in the US right now.

Other exposures that flight attendants have are to UV radiation because UV radiation is much higher at altitude as well and comes in through the windows in the aeroplane. Then also, the other factor that we worry about is circadian rhythm disruption which comes from working shifts, and working nights, and crossing time zones. So your sleep cycles get disrupted and that circadian rhythm disruption is linked to cancers in a number of studies, and a number of epidemiologic studies, and it’s also considered to be a probable carcinogen.

Adam - Wow! Is there anything that should be done to protect flight attendants, American flight attendants especially or is it just schedule changes, or is there anything we can do to the planes?

Irina - I don’t think there’s anything that can be done for the planes because usually the way you protect from radiation is lead or other heavy metals as well. I’m not an engineer but I don’t think you can build a layer of lead into the aeroplane and still have it be able to fly. In terms of protecting flight attendants, as far as I know there’s just the schedule changes and also, of course just living as healthy a lifestyle as possible outside of the job.

Adam - What about frequent flyers; people who are in planes a lot? Is there any danger to those people or is it just a flight attendant problem?

Irina - Frequent flyers have not been studied in terms of cancer at all, to my knowledge, so we don’t know. But just logically, they’re also exposed to higher radiation levels and the same exposure as flight attendants in terms of the radiation, in terms of the UV radiation. So I guess the answer is that we don’t know, but it’s a concern.




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