Objectives: To study whether increased cancer risk, particularly of cancer types previously related to radiation, was found among cabin attendants, using employment time as a surrogate of exposure to cosmic radiation.
Methods: A cohort of 1690 cabin attendants, 158 men and 1532 women from the Icelandic Cabin Crew Association and two airline companies in Iceland, was established. Cancer sites were ascertained between 1955 and 1997 by follow-up in a cancer registry. The personal identification number of each subject was used in record linkage to population-based registers containing vital and emigration status, reproductive factors and histologically verified cancer diagnosis. Standardized incidence rates (SIR) of different cancer sites in relation to employment time and year of hiring were calculated, as well as predictive values of breast cancer risk for evaluating possible confounding due to reproductive factors.
Results: The total number of person-years was 27,148. Among the women, 64 cancers were observed whereas 51.63 were expected (SIR 1.2, 95% CI 1.0-1.6), and significantly increased risk for malignant melanoma (SIR 3.0, 95% CI 1.2-6.2) was found. Significantly increased risks of overall cancers (SIR 1.3, 95% CI 1.0-1.8) and breast cancer (SIR 1.6, 95% CI 1.0-2.4) were observed among the female cabin attendants when 15 years lag time was applied. Those hired in 1971 or later had the heaviest exposure to cosmic radiation at a young age and had significantly increased risk of overall cancer (SIR 2.8, 95% CI 1.4-4.9) and breast cancer (SIR 4.1, 95% CI 1.7-8.5). Predictive values calculated on the basis of reproductive factors among the cabin attendants and the population, and risk of breast cancer were 1.0 for parous vs. nulliparous, 1.0 for number of children, and 1.1 for age at birth of first child.
Conclusion: The increased risk of breast cancer and malignant melanoma among cabin attendants seems to be occupationally related. The part played by occupational exposures, i.e. cosmic radiation, disturbance of the circadian rhythm, and electromagnetic fields or combination of these factors in the etiology of breast cancer among the cabin crew, is still a puzzle as confounding due to parity appears to be ruled out. The relationship between the sunbathing habits of the cabin crew and the increased risk of malignant melanoma needs to be clarified. There is also an urgent need to elucidate the importance of these findings for today's aviation.