Is Accumulating Sky Miles a Risk for Cancer?

A flight attendant’s job looks glamorous, but is being up in the air for hours, along with losing sleep and having to deal with nasty passengers, glamorous after all? These might still be manageable, but a recent study has shown that soaring the skies for a long duration might actually increase the risk of cancer.

A recent report released as part of the Harvard Flight Attendant Health Study has found a link between flying at above 30,000 feet and an increased risk for cancer. More than 5,000 flight attendants were surveyed (91% current employees and 9% former attendants), most of them being women, along with approximately 2,700 people who worked on the ground. Apart from the job profiles, both groups had similar educational backgrounds and incomes.

Air cabin crew members have the risk of being exposed to various carcinogens like jet fuel, pesticides, and other chemicals. They are also exposed to dangerous radiation from the upper atmosphere, which is strong enough to penetrate airplanes.

This ionizing radiation can be very dangerous, especially to the DNA; studies have linked damaged DNA to different types of cancer. The research shows that women are at more risk than men and their chances of being diagnosed with cancers like breast cancer, thyroid cancers, melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers are extremely high.

The study also found that women flight attendants with three or more children stand a higher risk of breast cancer. This is surprising because previous studies have shown a lesser chance of breast cancer in women who bear children. However, when it comes to flight attendants, researchers believe that their risk increases because they are probably sleep deprived throughout their lives.

When on the ground, these women are likely busy chaperoning the kids to their various activities and when flying, they stay up for long hours, disrupting their circadian rhythm or sleep-wake cycle. A disrupted cycle can lead to various health issues, including an increased risk of cancer.

Another surprising factor the researchers found was the low number of flight attendants who smoked and were obese, in comparison to the ground workers. While smoking and obesity are considered cancer risks, it looks like flying for long hours may actually be a greater risk.

Findings Linking Flying and Cancer

Even though this single study isn’t enough to claim that a flight attendant is at a definite risk of a cancer diagnosis, it has found a possible link, especially in the case of non-melanoma skin cancers.

Reducing the Risk of Cancer in Flight Attendants

The researchers found that flights in the European Union (EU) undergo regular inspections to check the amount of radiation the cabin crew is exposed to and provide protection to the crew, especially pregnant women. The U.S. still lacks a similar procedure, especially when it comes to dealing with dangerous radiation from the upper atmosphere. We can only hope that they update their processes soon.

Tips for reducing the risk of exposure:

Whether you are part of the cabin crew or a frequent flyer, racking up miles, here are some tips for reducing the chances of cancer:

While the study has some disturbing findings, with proper care taken by the flight attendants, airline companies, and travelers, we can work toward achieving safer flying conditions for both the cabin crew and passengers.


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Tawagi, K., & Craine, P. (2018, June 26). Flight attendants may have increased risk for certain cancers: Study. Retrieved from