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AIRCREW SAFETY & HEALTH

Cancer

What you need to know

Aircrew may be more likely to get skin cancer and female flight attendants may be more likely to get breast cancer than the general population. Here you can learn more about steps you can take to reduce your risk.

What is known about the risk of cancer in aircrew?

Aircrew are exposed to elevated levels of cosmic ionizing radiation and circadian rhythm disruption from traveling across time zones and working when others would normally be asleep. Ionizing radiation is known to cause cancer. Some studies suggest that circadian rhythm disruption may also cause cancer.

HIAPER research aircraft taking off

Photo courtesy of Julie Haggerty (NCAR)

Based on aircrew research, crew members may be more at risk for:

  • Skin cancer: A number of studies have been done to look at the risk of cancer among aircrew. Overall, they indicate that crewmembers are more likely to be diagnosed with melanoma and other skin cancers.
  • Breast cancer: Studies also suggest that female flight attendants are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer than the general population.
  • Kaposi sarcoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma: Studies have found that male flight attendants have an increased risk of Kaposi sarcoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. HIV infection is a risk factor for both Kaposi sarcoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and the increased risk of these cancers among male flight attendants is most likely related to HIV/AIDS.

Because smoking used to be allowed on planes years ago, there is concern about health effects among crew members who were exposed to second hand smoke. However, studies to-date have not found an increase in lung cancer among aircrew.

What is not known?

We don’t know for sure why aircrew are more likely to be diagnosed with melanoma and other skin cancers than the general population.

UV radiation from sun exposure is a major risk factor for malignant melanoma and other skin cancers. It’s possible that crewmembers are exposed to the sun more outside of work than the general population. They may also be exposed to the sun more during flights.

We know the level of UV radiation is higher at commercial aircraft altitudes than it is at sea level, but we don’t know how much UV radiation is blocked by the windshield and cabin windows on all commercial aircraft. Research suggests that plastic windshields block most UVA and UVB radiation from the sun. Research suggests that glass windshields block most UVB radiation but block slightly less than half of UVA radiation from the sun.

We don’t know for sure why female flight attendants are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer than the general population, but it may be because of

  • Exposure to elevated levels of cosmic ionizing radiation
  • Circadian rhythm disruption from traveling across time zones and working when others would normally be asleep
  • Differences in non-work related risk factors for breast cancer

Why might aircrew be concerned about cancer?

Although we don’t know why, aircrew seem to be more likely to get skin cancer and breast cancer.

  • Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States. Melanoma is the deadliest kind of skin cancer.
  • Breast cancer is the most common cancer among American women other than skin cancer. About one in eight women will develop breast cancer at some point during their lifetime.

What you can do to reduce your risk of breast cancer

You can take the following general steps to reduce your risk of breast cancer:

Although breast cancer screening cannot prevent breast cancer, it can help find breast cancer early, when it’s easier to treat. Talk to your doctor about which breast cancer screening tests are right for you, and when you should have them.

If you have a family history of breast cancer or inherited changes in your BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, you may have a higher risk of breast cancer. Talk to your doctor about these ways of reducing your risk:

  • Antiestrogens or other medicines that block or decrease estrogens in your body
  • Surgery to reduce your risk of breast cancer.
    • Prophylactic (preventive) mastectomy (removal of breast tissue)
    • Prophylactic (preventive) salpingo-oophorectomy (removal of the ovaries and fallopian tubes)
  • If you are concerned that exposure to cosmic ionizing radiation and circadian rhythm disruption at work may increase your risk of breast cancer, you can try to reduce your exposure to cosmic ionizing radiation and circadian rhythm disruption.

For more information about preventing breast cancer, visit Breast Cancer (PDQ): Prevention.

What you can do to reduce your risk of skin cancer

To reduce your risk of skin cancer, protect your skin from the sun and avoid indoor tanning. You can take the following general steps to protect your skin from the sun:

  • Stay in the shade, especially during midday hours.
  • Wear clothing that covers your arms and legs.
  • Wear a hat with a wide brim.
  • Wear sunglasses that block both UVA and UVB rays
  • Use sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher and both UVA and UVB protection.
  • In addition to using sunscreen outside of work, use sunscreen at work since some UV radiation comes through the windows on some aircraft, especially aircraft with glass windows.
  • Watch for abnormal moles, which can develop into melanoma, and talk to your doctor about any suspicious areas or unusual moles.

Learn more about sun safety and indoor tanning.

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