Up in the Air, Radiation Exposure Was Higher

Ultraviolet radiation exposure and melanoma risk were raised in airline pilots and cabin crew

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Pilots and cabin crew members may want to make sure sunscreen is part of their pre-flight routine.

A new study found that time spent in the cockpit was exposing pilots to radiation levels rivaling those of indoor tanning beds.

"We strongly recommend the use of sunscreens and periodical skin checks for pilots and cabin crew," the authors of this study wrote.

Martina Sanlorenzo, MD, of the University of California, San Francisco, led this study. Dr. Sanlorenzo had previously led a study that found that both pilots and cabin crew had higher rates of melanoma than the average population.

The findings prompted Dr. Sanlorenzo and colleagues to study the amount of ultraviolet (UV) radiation that pilots were exposed to inside a cockpit. Melanoma is an aggressive form of skin cancer.

These researchers measured UV radiation levels in the pilot seat of a jet. The measurements were taken in San Jose, CA, and again in Las Vegas to account for radiation differences in locations.

Dr. Sanlorenzo and team also used the same measuring tools to determine radiation levels inside an indoor tanning bed. Indoor tanning had been tied to a higher risk of melanoma.

These researchers found that, for every 56 minutes spent in the cockpit at 30,000 feet, pilots received the same dose of UV rays that they would get from a 20-minute indoor tanning session.

"These levels could be significantly higher when flying over thick cloud layers and snow fields, which could reflect up to 85% of UV radiation," Dr. Sanlorenzo and team added.

According to these study authors, most airplane windshields are made of plastic or composite glass that does not block all UV rays.

Pilots and cabin crew need better UV protection, Dr. Sanlorenzo and team wrote. They said pilots and crew should wear sunscreen and be regularly examined for potentially cancerous moles.

This study was published Dec. 17 in JAMA Dermatology.

The National Cancer Institute funded this research. The authors declared no conflicts of interest.


Review Date: 
December 15, 2014
Last Updated:
March 10, 2015