Flight attendants are exposed to a number of known cancer-causing risks, but few studies have rigorously quantified that risk, and researchers say they are an understudied occupational group.
The Harvard Flight Attendant Health Study (FAHS), begun in 2007, addresses some of the gaps in understanding health risks among flight attendants. In the latest report, published in the journal Environmental Health, researchers found that flight attendants had higher rates of many cancers, including breast cancer and melanoma, compared to the general population.
The FAHS included more than 5,300 flight attendants who were recruited through online and mailed surveys, and given in person at airports. The flight attendants answered questions about their flight schedules, as well as any diagnoses of cancer. The researchers, led by Irina Mordukhovich, a research associate at Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, then compared the responses to those from a matched group of people not in the airline profession from an ongoing national health survey.
Flight attendants at Alaska Airlines reported health symptoms after the introduction of new uniforms in 2011. The airline replaced the uniforms in 2014 without acknowledging harm. To understand possible uniform-related health effects, we analyzed self-reported health symptoms in crew who participated in the Harvard Flight Attendant Health Study between 2007 and 2015, the period before, during, and after the introduction of new uniforms.
We calculated a standardized prevalence of respiratory, dermatological and allergic symptoms at baseline, as well as during and after uniform changes in 684 flight attendants with a varying number of surveys completed across each time point. We used Generalized Estimating Equations (GEE) to model the association between symptoms at baseline versus the exposure period after adjusting for age, gender and smoking status and weighting respondents for the likelihood of attrition over the course of the study period.
We found the following symptom prevalence (per 100) increased after the introduction of new uniforms: multiple chemical sensitivity (10 vs 5), itchy/irritated skin (25 vs 13), rash/hives (23 vs 13), itchy eyes (24 vs 14), blurred vision (14 vs 6), sinus congestion (28 vs 24), ear pain (15 vs 12), sore throat (9 vs 5), cough (17 vs 7), hoarseness/loss of voice (12 vs 3), and shortness of breath (8 vs 3). The odds of several symptoms significantly increased compared to baseline after adjusting for potential confounders.
This study found a relationship between health complaints and the introduction of new uniforms in this longitudinal occupational cohort.
Researchers at Harvard School of Public Health conducted a landmark study in 2007 on this subject, and follow-up today is needed to understand trends in flight attendant health over time.
Over 4,000 flight attendants participated in the first study, which was the largest epidemiologic surveillance on flight attendant health in the U.S.
We surveyed flight attendants from two domestic U.S. airlines in 2007 and compared the prevalence of their health conditions to the general U.S. population in NHANES
The prevalence of respiratory disease amongst flight attendants was approximately three times that found in the general U.S. population.
In addition, sleep disorders, fatigue, depression and heart disease were greatly increased in female Flight Attendants compared to the U.S. population.
Female flight attendants reported 34% more reproductive cancers.
Health conditions that increased with longer job tenure as a flight attendant were chronic bronchitis, heart disease in females, skin cancer, hearing loss, depression and anxiety, even after adjusting for age, gender, body mass index (BMI), education, and smoking