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Monday, 20 November, 2000, 17:26 GMT
Air crew 'cancer risk'
airlinestaff
Could airline staff be at increased risk of cancer?
By Jon Manel, from BBC Radio 4's 'PM' programme

The World Health Organisation (WHO) is calling for further research into cancer risks and flying after a new US cancer study.

The BBC has seen what claims to be the largest ever study of cancer among flight attendants.

Scientists from the California Department of Health Services looked at members of the Association of Flight Attendants in the state.

While their overall cancer rates didn't differ from that of the general population, the study found they had about twice the incidence of melanoma skin cancer than expected and the incidence of breast cancer was 30% higher.

Those behind the report are now calling for investigations to be carried out into why the figures are that high, suggesting future research should look at lifestyle differences as well as potential occupational risks.

The WHO says those who fly are subject to a greater level of radiation than the general public but that level is still very low.

It says if the higher cancer levels are in any way linked with flying, it's more likely to be connected with disruption of "circadian rhythms".

Time changes

Mike Repacholi, the coordinator of the WHO's occupational and environmental health unit, says crossing time zones disrupts the production of the hormone melatonin.

He said: "Melatonin is an antioxidant and radical scavenger which picks up these chemical species that occur in the body, scavenges them, collects them and protects the DNA - but if there is less melatonin there then the probability of increased damage to the DNA is more likely."

The WHO says this requires further research but says the lifestyles of cabin crew also have to be considered.

Aviation health expert Dr Ian Perry said he was concerned about the tendency to blame everything on flying.

He says the most likely explanation for the results of the research is nothing to do with the actual process of flying at all.

"I don't believe this is anything to do with the plane" he said.

"There's a great public outcry today to blame the plane. It's more to do with their lifestyle and I'm sure it has something to do with their irregular diet over the years".

"These people go to many exotic places - that's why they take on the job. So they get exposed to much more sunlight than you or I and therefore run the risk of getting more skin problems than the normal person".

The report, "Cancer Incidence in California Flight Attendants", is to be reviewed by other scientists soon, before being officially published in the United States.

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See also:

16 Nov 00 | Health
Aeroplane heart attack warning
27 Oct 00 | Health
Blood clot travel link disputed
10 Nov 00 | Health
More evidence of flying risk
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