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Air travel and cancer

Air travel is unlikely to increase a passenger's cancer risk.Flying on a commercial airline is a safe way to travel and is unlikely to affect your risk of cancer.

Radiation

The Earth receives a lot of ‘cosmic radiation’ from space but our atmosphere shields us from most of this. The atmosphere thins the higher you get, so someone flying in an airline would receive more cosmic radiation than someone on the ground.

Even so, a passenger would still get a very small amount of radiation.

Radiation can damage DNA, which could eventually lead to cancer. In theory, no level of radiation can be considered to be completely safe. But the low levels of radiation that a passenger would experience are very unlikely to seriously affect their cancer risk, even if they were a frequent flyer.

Pilots and air cabin crew

Pilots and air cabin crew spend much more time in the air and are exposed to much more radiation than passengers are. But even airline pilots are exposed to radiation levels well within safe limits.

However, some studies have suggested that pilots and air cabin crew may have a higher risk of skin cancer than other people. Female air cabin staff may also have a slightly higher risk of breast cancer.

It is unlikely that these risks are due to radiation. Even long-haul pilots and airline workers receive doses of cosmic radiation that are well below the safety thresholds set by international organisations. Compared to people in other jobs, their DNA is not noticeably more damaged. And they do not have higher rates of cancers that are known to be caused by radiation, such as leukaemia or thyroid cancer.

There could be other reasons why air crew might have higher rates of cancer:

  • Sun exposure is the main cause of skin cancers and pilots may spend more time in hotter climates than other people.
  • Air travel may disrupt body clocks and alter hormone levels, which could explain the possible increased breast cancer risks in stewardesses
  • Stewardesses may have no children, or have them at a later age than average, which are both risk factors for breast cancer.
  • Air crew may receive more frequent medical check-ups, so if they have a cancer, it is less likely to go undetected.

We need larger studies to understand why air crews seem to have higher risks of certain cancers. But few passengers will fly for as much time, so it is unlikely that they will need to take any particular precautions.

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Updated: 16 March 2010