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Airline staff and cancer

I am a female long haul air pilot and have heard that aircrew are more at risk of developing cancer due to more exposure to radiation? Are there any checks that I can have to screen for cancer?


Types of radiation

There are different types of radiation. The type of radiation that you would be exposed to as an airline pilot is called cosmic radiation. This is a type of low energy, ionising radiation and includes cosmic rays from the solar system (sun, stars and outer space). The genetic material of body cells (known as DNA) is very sensitive to ionising radiation. Exposing our DNA to large amounts of any type of ionising radiation may, over time, lead to a cancer developing. But the levels you are exposed to as a pilot are quite small. It does not mean that you will definitely get cancer.

Concern over pilots' and airline crews' exposure to larger than normal amounts of ionising cosmic radiation has prompted scientific research into this area. Below you can read about research into breast cancer, melanoma skin cancer and prostate cancer.


Breast cancer and female flight crew members

There seems to be some evidence that female aircrew have more breast cancers diagnosed than people in the general population. But it is not clear whether this is due to exposure to radiation.

Two studies were published in 2006 looking into all the research in this area and drawing it all together. This type of study is called a meta analysis. One of these studies was carried out by Japanese researchers and published in the Journal of Travel Medicine (volume 13, issue number 3). The other was done by Italian researchers and published in the Journal of Women's Health (volume 15, issue number 1). Both these studies found an increase in the risk of breast cancer. But they also both make the point that we don't know why the extra risk is occurring. It could perhaps be because of radiation exposure during flights. But there could also be lifestyle factors confusing the picture and these haven't been properly examined or ruled out.


Melanoma and flight crew members

There have also been studies showing that aircrew members have more melanomas diagnosed than we would expect by chance. But it is not clear whether the higher rate is due to exposure to radiation.

The studies above looked at skin melanomas as well as breast cancer. They found an increase in the risk of melanoma. But the researchers said that lifestyle factors such as sun exposure during leisure time could account for the increased rates of melanoma.

A UK study in 2013 looked into this. The study involved 16,329 flight crew and 3,165 air traffic control officers (ATCOs). It compared their cancer rates and their exposure to possible cancer causing factors in their work and lifestyles. This study found that both the flight crew members and the air traffic control officers had lower rates of cancer overall than the general population. The lower cancer rates were probably due to lower rates of smoking. But skin melanoma rates were higher in both the flight crew members and ATCOs.

The researchers found that the higher rates of melanoma were due to people in both groups sunbathing to get a tan and having skin that burns easily when exposed to sunlight. They said that the higher rates were not caused by cosmic radiation exposure during flights.


Prostate cancer and male flight crew members

Research has also looked at the risk of cancer for male aircrew. Researchers from Scandinavian countries evaluated data from 10,000 male airline pilots over 17 years. Their aim was to see if there is a link between cancer and exposure to cosmic radiation. This study was published in the British Medical Journal in 2002 (volume 325, page 7364).

From this study, these pilots seemed to be no more at risk of cancer than the rest of us, except for skin cancer (melanoma and non melanoma) and prostate cancer. There was a very small increase in prostate cancer compared to the general population. The rates were higher in pilots who had been flying longer. Researchers suggest that hormonal disturbances related to our natural body clock (circadian rhythms) may contribute to the increase in prostate cancer in these pilots. Our body time clock gets upset when we have jetlag or work night shifts.


Cancer screening

You ask about screening for cancer. Screening means testing people for the early stages of a disease before they have any symptoms. But before screening for any type of cancer can be carried out, doctors must have an accurate test to use. The test must be reliable in picking up cancers that are there. And it must not give false positive results in people who do not have cancer. At the moment there are reliable screening tests for breast cancer, bowel cancer and cervical cancer. But for many other types of cancer, we simply don’t have these as yet.

As you probably know, there is cervical screening, bowel screening, and breast screening available on the NHS in the UK. The links in the previous sentence take you to more information about these national screening programmes.

Otherwise, unless you have a strong family history of a particular type of cancer, it is very unlikely that your doctor would suggest regular screening on the basis that you are an aircrew member. If you are still worried, it may help to speak to your family doctor (GP), or the occupational health department at the airline you work for.


More information about radiation safety and airline staff

If you spend time out in the sun you should always take precautions to protect your skin from burning. There is information about preventing skin cancer in the melanoma section.

The Civil Aviation Authority is an organisation that regulates air travel. It has a page of information about aircrew exposure to cosmic radiation. Airline pilots and crew members are only exposed to radiation levels well within acceptable dose limits for occupational exposures recommended by the International Commission on Radiological Protection. They say that all airline pilots should insist that their employers provide them with the necessary information and education for them to fully understand this issue.

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Updated: 13 February 2014