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Flight attendants call for action in response to study that finds the job comes with high cancer risk

Flight attendants call for action in response to study that finds the job comes with high cancer risk
United Airlines flight attendant Charlotte Walters serves passengers during a flight from Houston to Chicago in 2013. A study by Harvard researchers found flight attendants have a higher prevalence of cancer than the general public. (Karen Warren / Associated Press)

A union representing the nation’s flight attendants has called for more health protections for its members, following a study that ties working as a flight attendant to an increased risk of developing breast and skin cancer.

The study, produced by researchers from Harvard University’s School of Public Health, supported the findings of other studies dating back to 2007 and said the risk of cancer is tied to the length of time flight attendants have been on the job.

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The greater risk of cancer among flight attendants, compared to the general public, comes despite an overall low rate of obesity and smoking among flight attendants, the study found.

The study noted that flight crews are exposed to “several known and probable carcinogens in the cabin environment,” including ionized radiation from the high altitude, irregular sleep patterns because of night shifts, frequently crossing time zones and poor air quality.

Flight attendants have complained in the past about the quality of air in the cabin, saying they fear that toxic air from heated engine oil can leak into the plane.

In a lengthy statement, the Assn. of Flight Attendants — which represents nearly 50,000 flight attendants — called on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration to mandate workplace protection for flight attendants.

“At a minimum, flight attendants need more education on the risks of radiation exposure, especially during pregnancy, along with the potential dangers of interrupted sleep patterns and job tenure,” the statement said.

An OSHA spokeswoman said the agency hasn’t had a chance to evaluate the Harvard study. An FAA spokesman noted that the FAA issued a notice in 2014 warning crew members about the risks of exposure to in-flight ionized radiation. The notice, however, doesn’t impose limits on how long flight crews can work in the air, while exposed to such radiation.

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