Flight Attendants Face Increased Cancer Risk, Radiation Hits All Flyers

by John Harper

Flight attendants suffer from some cancers at a prevalence up to 75 percent higher than the general population, according to a peer-reviewed study published Friday in the Environmental Health Journal. (h/t Lucky) Cancer rates among flight attendants were higher for every type of cancer mentioned in the report.

The study mentions ionizing radiation among environmental risk factors particular to flight crew employment, the same type of atmospheric solar radiation that makes air travel one of the top sources of artificial radiation exposure for the population at large. Frequent flyers — particularly those shuttling constantly back and forth on long-haul flights — must be among higher risk groups.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has published plenty of material on air travel-induced radiation exposure, among these factoids:

  • The average American is exposed to 35 millirems of cosmic radiation annually.
  • Additional exposure from a single transcontinental flight is about 3.5 millirems.
  • Radiation exposure is greater near the poles (where a large number of international flights pass).

The CDC also produced this incredibly dull video about the subject:

Cosmic radiation at that level doesn’t pose as a threat to human health, according to the CDC. But some simple head math shows the risk to frequent flyers and airline employees. A traveler who takes 10 transcontinental flights per year effectively doubles exposure to cosmic radiation.

Individuals constantly entering the polar regions, on routes between the East Coast and Asia or West Coast and Europe, face greater exposure.

There’s not much a flyer can do to mitigate this increased radiation exposure at altitude (Amtrak, anyone?), but this study is a reminder that constant air travel is not the healthiest habit in the world. Reality check.

Other flight attendant occupational risk factors named in the cancer study are disrupted circadian cycles (sleep cycles), irregular schedules, frequently crossing time zones, and exposure to pollution prevalent in cabin air.

Flight crew members in the European Union are entitled to additional medical protection and benefits related to their occupational exposure to cancer risks. Those in the United States are still waiting for the same level of recognition.

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