Flight attendants have a very important job, keeping passengers safe and comfortable during flights. Without them, flights would feel much longer and much more difficult to endure. Unfortunately, they are exposed to various hazards, especially regarding their health. In fact, in a 2018 study, researchers found that flight attendants have a higher risk of developing cancer. The study shows that American flight attendants have higher rates of many types of cancer compared with the general population.
American Flight Attendants Have A Higher Risk of Certain Cancers
Being a flight attendant is a tough job. Sometimes referred to as “customer service in the skies,” they often deal with difficult, grumpy customers, stressed-out travelers, and rude fliers. Unlike most similar positions, however, they can’t just call security or remove someone acting out or causing a disturbance. Attendants go through a lot in one shift, and don’t receive the pay nor the recognition that they deserve. On top of all of that, a new study on American flight attendants shows that they also have a higher risk of developing certain cancers.
This study, published in the journal Environmental Health, found that women and men on U.S. cabin crews have increased rates of multiple types of cancer. This includes cancers of the breast, cervix, skin, thyroid and uterus, as well as gastrointestinal system cancers, such as colon, stomach, esophageal, liver, and pancreatic cancers. (1)
Irina Mordukhovich, the lead author of the study and a research associate at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said that flight attendants are exposed to multiple carcinogens in their working environment. This puts them at risk for cancer. One potential carcinogen is cosmic ionizing radiation which is particularly damaging to DNA and has the potential to cause breast cancer and non-melanoma skin cancer. Attendants receive the highest yearly dose of ionizing radiation on the job compared to all U.S. workers. It is also known that cabin crew members are regularly exposed to more UV radiation than the general population which makes them more vulnerable to skin cancers. Furthermore, circadian rhythm disruptions such as jetlag might be linked with an increased risk of cancer, according to Mordukhovich. These disruptions can lead to changes in immune function and cell metabolism which can reduce the suppression of tumors. (2)
“Flight attendants are considered a historically understudied occupational group, so there is a lot we don’t know about their health,” says Mordukhovich. “What we do know for sure is the exposures that both pilots and flight attendants have—the main one being high radiation levels because of cosmic radiation at altitude.” (3)
Chemical Exposure On The Job
Another possible threat to their health is chemical exposure. Flight attendants who worked before 1988, when smoking was first banned on some U.S. flights, were routinely exposed to secondhand smoke while on board the aircraft. Just picture it: A bunch of people smoking for several hours, and you can’t even open a window. Additionally, other chemical contaminants found in the cabin may include engine leakages, pesticides, and flame retardants, which contain compounds that can act as hormone disruptors that increase the risk of some types of cancer.
“Little attention has been paid to job-related cancer risks for flight attendants,” says Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, a labor union group that represents 50,000 flight attendants, to TIME about the study. “The Harvard study shines light on this issue. Job-related cancer risk factors identified in the study include exposure to ionizing radiation, jet lag, pesticides, and other onboard chemicals. We will use the results to encourage airlines, airline manufacturers, and regulators to prevent exposures and change working conditions to reduce risk.”
This Study Applies to American Flight Attendants Only
It is important to note that European airlines are more regulated with more protection for flight attendants than their American counterparts. In the United States, flight attendants do not have the same occupational protections as their European colleagues. European airlines monitor and adjust radiation exposure levels more closely. They also have different work schedules to ensure that flight attendants do not exceed the European guidelines for carcinogen exposure.
Breast Cancer and Melanoma Among the Highest Rates
The study shows that breast cancer rates are about 50 percent higher in female flight attendants than in women from the general population. In addition, melanoma rates were more than two times higher and nonmelanoma skin cancer rates were about four times higher in female flight attendants compared with women from the general population. Melanoma rates in male flight attendants were nearly 50 percent higher, and non-melanoma skin cancer rates in male flight attendants were about 10 percent higher than the general population group.
Although the cancer risks for frequent flyers has not yet been studied, there is no reason to suspect that they would not have similar risks as those faced by flight attendants. Pilots are also at an increased risk of developing certain cancers. Studies of pilots have generally shown higher rates of skin and prostate cancers. However, compared to flight attendants, pilots have somewhat more built-in protections around their scheduling and rest times.
The Bottom Line
It’s crucial to acknowledge that the cancer risk associated with flying is not isolated to flight attendants alone. Passengers are also exposed to cosmic radiation as well as other in-flight hazards. However, for frequent flyers, the cancer risks of flying have yet to be studied. For those who fly often, you may want to consider trying to reduce how often you are flying. Try planning trips so that you aren’t flying back and forth so much, and use other methods of travel when possible.
No matter what, the facts can’t be ignored: Flight attendants are at increased risk of developing cancer due to their exposure to a variety of hazards, especially their repeated exposure to cosmic ionizing radiation. European airlines are more regulated and provide more protection for flight attendants than their American counterparts. The study shows that flight attendants have higher rates of cancers of the breast, cervix, skin, thyroid, and uterus as well as gastrointestinal system cancers, such as colon, stomach, esophageal, liver and pancreatic cancers. Although there is no reason to suspect that frequent flyers would not have similar risks to flight attendants, no study has confirmed this yet.
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- “Cancer prevalence among attendants compared to the general population.” EH Journal. Eileen McNeely, et al. June 26, 2018.
- “Cancer.” CDC.
- “Flight Attendants Have Higher Rates of Many Cancers, Study Says.” Time. Alice Park. June 25, 2018.