The job of an airline pilot is stressful. In 2014 it was ranked the fourth most stressful job in the United States, just below firefighter and military general. But stress isn’t the only health concern of airline pilots. According to numerous studies, pilots and airline crew have a higher risk of developing skin cancer.
In 2001, Cary C. Butler, Ph.D. and Joyce S. Nicholas, Ph.D., completed a study on pilot health. The results of the study, published in the article, "Health Among Airline Pilots," outlines the results of a self-reported survey mailed to over 10,000 pilots, both active and retired. According to the authors, "the estimated incidence of melanoma was found to be significantly increased among airline pilots." The authors also point to studies with the same findings completed in other countries: Denmark, England, Wales, Sweden, Iceland and Norway.
More recently, in September 2014, an analysis of 19 studies, completed between 1990 and 2013, found that the rate for melanoma among airline pilots and cabin crew was more than double that of the general public. There were more than 266,000 participants in all of the studies combined.
The researchers believe that high altitudes might have something to do with the high rate of melanoma. When pilots fly at 30,000 feet, which is where commercial airlines usually fly, the "UV level is approximately twice that of the ground." Flying over clouds and snow fields can increase the levels of UV radiation. While the windshields in planes block almost all of the UVB rays, more than half of UVA rays can penetrate the windshield.
Not everyone is convinced that the sun exposure while in the cockpit is responsible for the increase in melanoma rates. According to an article on HealthDay, Eero Pukkala, a Finnish researcher who studies the health risk of airline personnel, there can be other causes. He explains that airline pilots and crew might have more frequent flights to warm, sunny areas. Sun-tanning, or spending extra time outdoors in these areas, could contribute to the increased risk of skin cancer.
While Dr. Susana Ortiz-Urda, the lead author of the recent study, believes the airlines could take steps to reduce the risk, such as using other materials for windshields, for example switching to plastic windows which would better block UVA rays, Pukkala doesn’t believe the airlines need to anything because he believes the pilots and crew spend more time sun-bathing in sunny areas. Ortiz-Urda disagrees, stating that previous studies have shown there are not significant differences in leisure activities of pilots and crew members when compared to the general population.
Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.