Researchers found that women and men on USA cabin crews have higher rates of many types of cancer, compared with the general population. Their results were published Monday in the journal Environmental Health.
"Our study is among the largest and most comprehensive studies of cancer among cabin crew to date and we profiled a wide range of cancers", said Irina Mordukhovich, a study author and research fellow at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, in an emailed statement.
Sun exposure, a leading risk factor for skin cancers, might also be higher for flight attendants because they might spend time in the sun on layovers, noted Dr. Alessandra Buja, of the University of Padova in Italy, in an email.
"Having fewer children and having children later in life are known risk factors for breast cancer", Pinkerton, who wasn't involved in the current study, said by email.
"Flight attendants are considered a historically understudied occupational group, so there is a lot we don't know about their health", says Mordukhovich.
Researchers surveyed 5,366 male and female flight attendants from 2014 to 2015 and compared cancer rates to those recorded in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's 2013 to 2014 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
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 FAA reauthorization bill could do with required minimum rest times.
While cosmic radiation originates in outer space, small amounts reach the earth, and greater chances of exposure occur at higher altitudes. But there are no limitations or regulations in the USA on how much exposure is safe for flight attendants.
While European regulators require monitoring of aircrews' radiation exposure and changes to their work schedules if it exceeds certain thresholds, no such rules exist in the U.S. They also suffer disruption to the body clock through irregular and anti-social shift patterns and poor air quality.
The findings are particularly worrisome considering that according to data the study collected, flight attendants are in many respects healthier than the general public. "Consistent with previous studies, we report a higher lifetime prevalence of breast, melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers among flight crew relative to the general population".
Plane stewards are routinely exposed to several known and suspected carcinogens, including altitude-based radiation.
"This is striking given the low rates of being overweight and smoking in this occupational group". "We hope the study highlights issues about exposures that we know are problematic for flight attendants and pilots and aren't now being addressed".