Flight attendants are at a significantly higher risk for many types of cancers, a new study finds. According to the latest report of the Harvard Flight Attendant Health Study published in the journal of Environmental Health, flight attendants are more likely to develop different types of cancers than the general population.
It’s been known that flight attendants, a profession largely made up of women, are at higher risk for melanoma and breast cancer. In the general population, 22 out of 10,000 women between the aged of 50 and 54 are expected to be diagnosed with breast cancer within the next year.
Yet the study, published on Monday, June 25, found that flight attendants also had a higher prevalence for every other cancer that was examined. These cancers include thyroid, cervical, uterine, gastrointestinal, and non-melanoma skin cancer.
“Something that somewhat surprised us, to some extent, was that we also saw a higher instance of breast cancer in women with three or more children,” said Irina Mordukhovich in an interview with CNN. Mordukhovich is the co-author of the study and a research associate at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
A woman is often at lower risk for breast cancer when she has more than one child, Mordukhovich said. But a woman with three or more children may not be getting enough sleep every night.
This, in combination with the sleep disruption of the job, can take a heavy toll on the body. In fact, disruptions in a person’s sleep-wake cycle have been linked to an increased risk of cancer.
One of the many possible reasons is that flight attendants are exposed more often to carcinogens such as jet fuel, fire retardants, and pesticides compared to the general public. Additionally, they’re exposed to higher levels of cosmic ionizing radiation when they’re flying.
Higher exposures to carcinogens, cosmic ionizing radiation, and little time to sleep for the body to repair itself may also suggest that frequent fliers also face higher cancer risks.
Although there isn’t a lot of research on frequent fliers, previous findings on those who frequently travel for work have found that the more often you travel the more likely you are to fall ill. This is because of poor sleep, uneven exercise habits, and the consumption of airport food. The average American eats a burger 4.3 times a month, which means a frequent flier is eating more than one burger a week.
Mordukhovich said she and her colleagues were motivated to conduct the study because of the gaps in previous research. These gaps, she says, could also mean that there are gaps in flight attendants’ protection policies in the United States.
For instance, there are no official cosmic ionizing radiation exposure limits for American aircrew. To improve the health conditions of flight attendants, policies would need to be improved to reduce exposure to dangerous chemicals.
Compared to flight attendants, frequent fliers may have more control over their health. Although there’s no guarantee you won’t develop cancer, there are a few ways you can reduce your risk.
A person can only live for three days without fresh water, but many Americans are suffering from chronic dehydration. This dehydration may increase during travel because you’re replacing water with coffee and energy drinks.
Make water your go-to drink before, during, and after a flight. Eat a healthy meal before you fly and, if you’re forced to eat airport food, look for the healthiest options available instead of settling on fast food.
Additionally, be sure you’re giving your body the care it needs. While some Americans are trying whole-body cryotherapy, which involves exposing the body to temperatures between -100 and -140 degrees Celsius for therapeutic purposes, other types of wellness therapies are also available to help you improve your health when you can.
“Our goal with this is to do the science and provide more evidence for policy-makers about this profession’s health,” said Mordukhovich. “We hope this helps.”