Three groups of researchers have now found that air cabin staff in the USA, Denmark and Finland have a greatly increased risk of the disease.
Until now the only possible reason put forward has been prolonged exposure to increased cosmic radiation, but it is widely accepted that it would not account for such a big increase in risk.
Now, two researchers who looked at the incidence of breast cancer in retired American stewardesses say that dicophane, or DDT, may be the culprit. The organochlorine pesticide was used in planes from the Fifties to the Seventies.
Ironically, it was the World Health Organisation which recommended that DDT be sprayed inside the airliners just before take off, with the doors sealed.
"According to a WHO recommendation, on certain international flights DDT was to be sprayed throughout the aircraft from a single-use, hand operated aerosol dispenser after the doors were closed, before take off, while air ventilation was limited," say Dr Daniel Wartenberg and Cecile Stapelton of the Environmental and Occupational Health Services Institute, New Jersey, in a letter in this weekend's British Medical Journal.
"This may have resulted in substantial inhalation and dermal exposure to DDT for the person operating the aerosol. We suggest that exposure to DDT may be a risk factor for breast cancer," they add.
In the research they matched stewardesses with specific flights and with DDT use and whether or not they had breast cancer. What they found was that those women with breast cancer were more likely to have had higher than average exposures to DDT that those without breast cancer.
If such a link is more firmly established it could lead to a spate of compensation claims against airline companies.Reuse content