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According to a recent article published in the British Medical Journal, results from a clinical study indicate that the incidence of skin cancers and prostate cancer may be increased in airline pilots. However, the researchers could not directly attribute the development of these cancers to cosmic radiation.

Concern over pilots and cockpit crew being exposed to larger than normal amounts of low-energy ionizing cosmic radiation has sparked concern among researchers, as ionizing radiation can cause mutations within human DNA. Previous studies have implicated an association between an increased incidence of leukemia in cockpit crew; however, larger studies were needed to confirm this association. Recently, researchers from Scandinavia (Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Iceland) evaluated data from over 10,000 male airline pilots for approximately 17 years to determine if an association exists between the incidence of cancer and exposure to cosmic radiation.

The data from this study indicated that there was no significant increase in cancer incidences among these pilots compared to the general population, except for skin (melanoma and non-melanoma) and prostate cancer. The pilots had approximately three times the incidence of skin cancer than the general population, and this incidence was increased in pilots with longer careers. However, the lifestyle of these pilots, including sun exposure, could not be effectively measured to determine the exact cause of this higher rate of skin cancer. In addition, a slight increase in the incidence of prostate cancer was observed in these pilots compared to the general population. The increased incidence was more pronounced in pilots with increasing numbers of long flights. Researchers speculate that hormonal disturbances related to circadian rhythms may be a contributing factor to the increased risk of prostate cancer in these pilots.

These researchers concluded that although the risk of skin cancer and prostate cancer appear to be increased in male airline pilots, a direct correlation between these cancers and cosmic radiation could not be definitively determined. Further studies are warranted evaluating lifestyle sun exposure and circadian rhythm imbalances and associations between skin and prostate cancer incidences. Airline pilots and cockpit crew may wish to speak with their physician about the results of this clinical trial and their possible risks of developing cancer.

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Reference: Pukkala E, Aspholm R, Auvinen A, et al. Incidence of cancer among Nordic airline pilots over five decades; occupational cohort study.

British Medical Journal. 2002;325: 567-569.