For those who enjoy working with the public and have been bitten by the travel bug, a career as an airline flight attendant may be appealing. However, this career elevates a person’s risk of developing cancer.

Cancer risk rises with exposure to carcinogens, substances or exposures that are known or suspected to cause cancer. Common carcinogens include tobacco use, lack of physical activity, pollution, household chemicals, herbicides and even medical treatments.

One type of exposure that cabin crews get is cosmic ionizing radiation, which is higher at high altitudes. The sun and other stars constantly emit cosmic radiation composed of high-energy subatomic particles. Much of the radiation is deflected by the earth’s magnetic field. Otherwise, it would be devastating to life.

These high-energy particles penetrate deep into tissues and can damage DNA, the genetic information in your cells. This DNA damage can lead to cancer. Ionizing radiation can break chemical bonds in molecules such as proteins and DNA, and form free radicals, which can continue to damage molecules even after the radiation has stopped. The incidence of cancer increases with the amount of ionizing radiation exposure.

On average, Americans are exposed to 620 millirem of radiation each year from many sources, including medical X-rays, natural substances in soil and rocks, proximity to coal power plants, exposure to the sun, and cosmic ionizing radiation. Flying from Chicago to London exposes a person to about 4.8 millirem. A chest X-ray exposes a person to between 2 and 10 millirem, airport body scanners deliver about 0.1 millirem doses, and a CT scan can give you a whopping 2,000 millirem dose.

In a recent study, 5,300 flight attendants from a variety of airlines completed a survey to measure their rates of cancer, along with 2,700 people who weren’t flight attendants. The rate of breast cancer among female flight attendants was 50 percent higher than women in the general population. Male flight attendants have an elevated risk for developing prostate cancer. In both genders, the rates of melanoma and non-melanoma (basal cell and squamous cell) skin cancers were also elevated.

Flight attendants are also exposed to other factors that increase their risk of developing cancer. Unpredictable schedules can disrupt the circadian rhythm, or the body’s day/night cycle. Circadian rhythm disruptions can affect the immune system and metabolism, the body’s natural ways of fighting cancer. Before the 1988 ban on smoking, flight attendants were exposed to a lot of secondhand smoke, a potent mix of carcinogens. Cabin crews are also exposed to a variety of chemicals, including pesticides, flame retardants and engine fluids, which can act as hormone disruptors that increase the risk of certain cancers.

In 1994, pilots and flight crews were classified as radiation workers by the Federal Aviation Administration, but there’s limited data on the consequences of their radiation exposure. Flight attendants tend to be healthy, with low levels of obesity and smoking, yet they still have elevated rates of cancer. This study is important because there’s no monitoring or regulation of cabin crew radiation exposures. Perhaps that needs to change.

Medical Discovery News is hosted by professors Norbert Herzog at Quinnipiac University, and David Niesel of the University of Texas Medical Branch. Learn more at

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