Australian pilots not at higher risk of melanoma

A new study has found modern airline pilots registered in Australia, appear not to be at higher risk of developing invasive melanoma than the rest of the population.

This is a significant change in findings after decades of older research in the northern hemisphere, which showed much higher risks in European and North American pilots.

The findings from QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute have been published today in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

Previous studies over past decades have consistently reported that commercial pilots from northern European countries and the United States were at increased risk of developing and dying from melanoma.

This was despite pilots having better than average health, and having regular medical checks.

QIMR Berghofer researcher and lead author, Associate Professor Catherine Olsen, said this study examined health information from more than 20,000 Australian licensed pilots.

“We looked at de-identified medical records from 2011 to 2016 held by the Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), and found pilots in this country were not at a higher risk of developing invasive melanoma than the general population,” Associate Professor Olsen said.

“This is the first study to examine melanoma incidence in Australian registered commercial pilots.

“The analysis focused on male pilots since there were too few female pilots to be assessed. The results show that their rates are similar to the general male population, and that male pilots who live in Queensland have the highest rates, just as Queensland residents do in Australia overall.

“Also the areas of the body where melanomas were detected match what we see in the Australian male population, with a large percentage on the back.

“That is, Australian pilots didn’t have more melanomas on the head, neck or arms, which would have been expected if sun exposure in the cockpit was a driving factor.”

Contributing author, Dr Kyoko Miura said the study built on a recent systematic review she led, that was a collaboration between UK and QIMR Berghofer researchers, of all relevant international research ever conducted into melanoma rates among airline pilots before the Australian study.

“That review found pilots had double the rate of melanoma compared to the general population and were at greater risk of death from the disease,” Dr Miura said.

“However, this review also found that all published evidence was from pilots operating in the northern hemisphere, and most of it had been collected from the1940s up to the early 2000s.

“Work practices and conditions have changed in more recent decades and there was no updated analysis of melanoma that captured modern pilots’ situations.

“So although that review of past studies suggested their melanoma was possibly caused by occupational exposure to hazardous ultraviolet, and cosmic radiation in the cockpit in the last century, it was also clear that those studies may not be relevant to today’s commercial pilots.”

Associate Professor Olsen said the new Australian study findings were important to allay concerns about melanoma risk that have been worrying many in the aviation industry.

“Today’s pilots work in different conditions and may have different lifestyles,” Associate Professor Olsen said.

“In the 1950s pilots may have had longer layovers, often in sunny locations, and they likely had much higher recreational sun exposure, but now current practices don’t really allow that, they fly more often.

“Conditions in airliners have also changed. Levels of short-wave solar ultraviolet radiation, the kind associated with melanoma, are mostly extremely low on today’s airliner flight decks.

“We believe our research should now be built on, using contemporary data gathered from around the world, in order to confirm whether commercial pilots in other countries that have lower background melanoma rates than Australia are also no longer at increased melanoma risk.”

The Australian study was conducted in collaboration with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority and was funded by the Australasian Society of Aerospace Medicine. The UK-Australian collaborative systematic review was published this year in the British Journal of Dermatology and was funded by Melanoma Focus in the UK.

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