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Pilots and flight attendants have increased cancer risk

What you may have heard

People who fly frequently, like pilots and flight attendants, are at higher risk for cancer.

What science tells us

Air crew are exposed to higher levels of radiation (specifically cosmic ionizing radiation, a type of radiation that comes from outer space). Cosmic ionizing radiation is known to cause cancer, and aircrew have the largest average exposure out of all radiation-exposed workers in the United States (CDC).  Air crew are also often subject to sleep cycle disruptions.

Epidemiological Evidence

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), both male and female crew members may be at increased risk for skin cancer, female crew members are at increased risk for breast cancer, and male aircrew have an increased risk of both Kaposi sarcoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma (CDC). While there is enough evidence to support these facts, scientists are still unsure why this is true, though they do have some theories:

  • UV radiation from sun exposure is a major risk factor for malignant melanoma, and UV radiation is significantly stronger at higher altitudes. Windows on commercial aircrafts block some radiation but not all (CDC).
  • Exposure to elevated levels of cosmic ionizing radiation (CDC)
  • Circadian rhythm (sleep cycle) disruption from traveling across time zones, and working when others would normally be asleep (CDC) may be associated with elevated cancer risk

Differences in non-flight-related exposures outside the workplace (i.e., aircraft) (CDC)

Laboratory Evidence/Supporting Evidence

Currently, there is limited laboratory evidence that explains a relationship between airplane flying and increased cancer risk.

IARC Carcinogen Classification: Group 1 (carcinogenic to humans: ionizing radiation)

How to reduce your risk

The CDC recommends that crew members try to reduce their time on very long flights, flights at high latitudes, or flights that go over the North and South Poles. These flights would result in the highest levels of radiation exposure (CDC).

To reduce your risk of skin cancer, protect your skin from the sun. There are many ways you can reduce your risk of skin cancer from UV radiation exposure: stay out of the sun/in the shade (especially during the middle of the day), wear clothing that cover your arms and legs, wear a hat with a wide brim, and wear sunglasses that block both UVA and UVB rays. Finally, watch for abnormal moles and talk to your doctor if any appear, as these moles may develop into melanoma (CDC).

Bottom line

Aircrew are at increased risk for both skin and breast cancers. The CDC recommends aircrew try to reduce their levels of radiation exposure.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): Cosmic radiation
CDC: Aircrew and cancer
CDC: Sun safety
CDC: Breast cancer
CDC: Skin cancer
NCI: Lymphoma


Published: July 6, 2021
Verified/updated: August 22, 2022