A Pentagon study found high cancer rates among US military pilots and, for the first time, showed that the ground crews who fuel, maintain and launch these aircraft are also getting sick.
The data has long been sought after by retired military aviators who for years have raised alarms about the number of air and ground crew they knew had cancer. They were told that previous military studies found they were at no greater risk than the general US population.
In its year-long study of nearly 900,000 military personnel who flew or worked on military aircraft between 1992 and 2017, the Pentagon found that aircrew members had an 87% higher rate of melanoma and a 39% higher rate of thyroid cancer, while men had a 16% higher rate of prostate cancer and women a 16% higher rate of breast cancer. Overall, aircrews had a 24% higher rate of cancer of all types.
The study showed that ground crews had a 19% higher rate of brain and nervous system cancer, a 15% higher rate of thyroid cancer, and a nine percent higher rate of kidney or kidney cancer, while women had a higher rate. seven percent higher. of breast cancer. The overall rate for cancers of all types was three percent higher.
Some good news was also reported. Ground and air crews had much lower rates of lung cancer, and air crews also had lower rates of bladder and colon cancer.
Data compared service members to the general US population after adjusting for age, gender, and race.
The Pentagon said the new study was one of the largest and most comprehensive to date. A previous study looked only at Air Force pilots and found some higher rates of cancer, whereas this one looked at all air and ground services and crews. Even with the broader approach, the Pentagon has warned that the actual number of cancer cases is likely to be even higher due to data gaps, which it said it would work to remedy.
The study “proves that it is past time for leaders and policymakers to move from skepticism to belief and active assistance,” said retired Air Force Colonel Vince Alcazar, a member of the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association, who made lobbying the Pentagon and Congress for help. Alcazar sits on the association’s medical affairs committee.
The study was mandated by Congress in the 2021 defense bill. Now, as higher rates have been found, the Pentagon must conduct an even larger review to try to understand why aircrews are getting sick.
Isolating potential causes is difficult, and the Pentagon was careful to note that this study “does not imply that military service in air or ground crews causes cancer, because there are multiple potential confounders that could not be controlled for in this analysis,” as family history, smoking or alcohol use.
But aviation crews have long asked the Pentagon to take a closer look at some of the environmental factors they are exposed to, such as jet fuels and solvents used to clean and maintain jet parts, sensors and their power sources in nose cones. of aircraft and the massive radar systems on the decks of the ships they land on.
When Navy Captain Jim Seaman returned home from a tour of duty aboard an aircraft carrier, his equipment smelled of jet fuel, said his widow Betty Seaman. The pilot of the A-6 Intruder died in 2018 at the age of 61 from lung cancer. Betty Seaman still has her gear in storage and it still smells like fuel, “which I love,” she said.
She and others wonder if there is a link. She said crews would talk about how even the ship’s water systems would smell of fuel.
She said she and others have mixed feelings about finally seeing in the data what they suspected for years about aviation cancers. But “it has the potential to do a lot of good in terms of early communication, early detection,” she said.
The study found that when crew members were diagnosed with cancer, they were more likely to survive than members of the general population, which the study suggested was because they were diagnosed earlier due to required regular medical checkups and were more likely to to have better health. because of their military fitness requirements.
The Pentagon acknowledged that the study had shortcomings that likely led to an undercount of cancer cases.
The military health system database used in the study did not have reliable cancer data until 1990, so it may not have included pilots who flew first-generation jets in previous decades.
The study also did not include cancer data from the Department of Veterans Affairs or state cancer registries, meaning it did not capture cases of former crew members who became ill after leaving the military medical system.
“It is important to note that the results of the study may have differed if other older ex-servicemen had been included,” he said.
To remedy this, the Pentagon will now extract data from these records to add to the total count, the study said.
The second phase of the study will try to isolate the causes. The 2021 bill requires the Department of Defense not only to identify “the carcinogenic toxic or hazardous materials associated with military flight operations,” but also to determine the type of aircraft and the locations where the diagnosed aircrews served.
After her husband fell ill, Betty Seaman asked if he would have chosen differently, knowing that his service could be linked to cancer.
“I asked Jim directly. And he, without hesitation, said, ‘I still would have done that.’