Uniforms may be making flight attendants sick

A slew of health issues reported by flight attendants over the past decade—rashes, blisters, hair loss, vomiting, migraines, and shortness of breath—may have something to do with chemicals in their uniforms.

Chemicals such as formaldehyde, used to make clothes wrinkle resistant, or dyes used for synthetic fabrics could be causing the flight attendants’ health problems, according to experts quoted in a July 16, 2019 article in Vox.

“It’s unlikely that there’s one specific smoking gun type of a chemical that’s causing these issues, but it’s likely to be a unique combination,” Irina Mordukhovich, research associate at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told Vox. Mordukhovich and Eileen McNeely, instructor in the Department of Environmental Health and director of SHINE (Sustainability and Health Initiative for NetPositive Enterprise), co-authored a 2018 study that found a connection between the health issues of Alaska Airlines flight attendants and their new uniforms.

McNeely and Mordukhovich also said that flight attendants’ working conditions—including long periods of time wearing their uniforms, breathing in engine exhaust and recycled air, and having disrupted circadian rhythms—may make them particularly vulnerable to chemical exposures.

“If you want to see if something is harmful, then you put it to the test of those most vulnerable,” McNeely said. “And that’s why people study occupational exposures, because they have this chronic, long-term exposure, and they will be the first to show signs.”

Read the Vox article: Flight attendants keep getting sick. It’s likely because of their uniforms.

Learn more

Documenting health risks at 35,000 feet (Harvard Chan School feature)

Flight Attendant Health Study