New research based on a medical literature review has found that the pilots and cabin crew of commercial aircraft have approximately twice the incidence of developing melanomas compared with members of the general population. If you’re a frequent flyer or even an infrequent flyer, is this relevant to you?
Melanoma rates in the U.S. consistently rise annually. UV is recognized and accepted as the major risk factor for the development of most melanomas, whether from the sun or artificial sources.
The authors of the study published in the prestigious journal JAMA Dermatology believe the alarmingly higher rate of melanoma amongst pilots and cabin crew was probably due to increased exposure to ultraviolet related to high altitudes.
The research involved a meta-analysis of 19 previous studies addressing the incidence of skin cancer in pilots and cabin crew involving over 266,000 participants. The researchers found that the overall incidence rate of melanoma for flight-based occupations was twice the incidence of melanoma compared with the general population.
The authors believed that an increased exposure to UV radiation for flight crews most probably explained their findings. We know that more than 90% of all damaging UV radiation that affects humans is UVA. Airplane windshields and cabin windows block UVA radiation minimally at best, and UVA is even twice as strong at common commercial airline altitudes as it is at sea level.
However, the authors did acknowledge that their study suffered from certain limitations in that it utilized observational and predominantly retrospective studies. The authors were also unable to adjust the findings of the studies for other variables that may have skewed the results… and so this study doesn’t have the validity that a controlled study does… which is the best type.
Now… I understand why pilots have increased UV exposure from large wraparound cockpit windows. However, the cabin crew probably has less UV exposure than passengers so it’s not obvious to me why they should also have a higher incidence of melanoma.
But here’s the good news. For you, even as a frequent flyer, if you’re applying broad spectrum sunscreen daily as you know you should, for the amount of time you’ll be potentially exposed to increased UVA on your flight, you probably accrue no significant increased risk for melanoma. But if it’s a daylight flight and you have a window seat, if you’re still concerned, pull down the shade and have a nice trip. As a non commercial pilot who spends a fair amount of time in front of wraparound cockpit windows, I apply sunscreen before every flight.