Studies Associate Flying With Melanoma Skin Cancer Risks

July 19, 2017

Did you know that a pilot flying for one hour at 30,000 feet could be exposed to the same amount of radiation had the pilot had a 20-minute tanning bed session? That is a finding in study published in The Journal of American Medical Association Dermatology.[1]  The problem, according to the authors, is that airplane windshields are commonly made of polycarbonate plastic or multilayer composite glass—materials that do very well at blocking UV-B but not all UV-A. Exposure to Ultraviolet-A radiation is a well-known to be associated with the development of melanoma.[2] 

Numerous studies have shown an increased risk of melanoma for airline pilots and flight crew. In 2015, a meta-analysis of 19 studies and a quarter of a million subjects found that airline flight crew had a 221 percent increased risk of melanoma—that’s more than a doubling of the risk of melanoma for flight crew compared to the general population.[3]  The study also found a 42 percent increased mortality rate due to melanoma compared to the general population.[4]  

Melanoma is the deadliest skin cancer.[5] The American Cancer Society estimates that 87,110 new melanomas will be diagnosed and about 9,730 people are expected to die of melanoma in 2017 alone.[6]  

It appears that UV exposure and the increased risk of melanoma are not well-recognized occupational risk factors for flight crew. It also appears that industry and manufacturers could do a better job insulating commercial aircraft to block UV-A and better protect pilots, crew, and passengers from the risk of cancer.

[1] Sanlorenzo et al., The Risk of Melanoma in Pilots and Cabin Crew: UV Measurements in Flying Airplanes, 151 JAMA Dermatol. 450-451 (April 2015).
[2] See Ananthaswamy & Pierceall, Molecular Mechanisms of Ultraviolet Radiation Carcinogenesis, 52 Photochem Photobiol. 1119-1136 (1997).
[3] Sanlorenzo et al., The Risk of Melanoma in Pilots and Cabin Crew: A Meta-Analysis, 151 JAMA Dermatol. 51-58 (January 2015).
[4] Id.



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