A Pentagon study revealed a high cancer rate among military pilots and showed for the first time that ground crews who fuel, maintain and launch these aircraft are also getting sick.
The data has long been sought by retired military aviators who have been raising the alarm for years about the number of air and ground crew members they knew had cancer. They were told that earlier military studies had found they were at no greater risk than the general US population.
In its one-year study of nearly 900,000 service members 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 16 % higher rate of prostate cancer, and women 16% higher rate of breast cancer. Overall, flight crews had a 24% higher rate of all types of cancer.
The study found that ground crews had a 19% higher rate of brain and nervous system cancer, a 15% higher rate of thyroid cancer, and a 9% higher rate of kidney or kidney cancer, while women had a 7% higher rate of breast cancer. The overall rate of cancer of all types was 3% higher.
There was also good news. Both ground and flight crews had far lower rates of lung cancer, and flight crews also had lower rates of bladder and colon cancer.
The data compared members of the military to the general US population after adjusting for age, gender and race.
The Pentagon said the new study is one of the largest and most comprehensive to date. The earlier study looked only at Air Force pilots and found some higher cancer rates, while this one looked at all services and air and ground crew. Even with broader access, the Pentagon has warned that the actual number of cancer cases is likely to be even higher because of data gaps, which it said it will work to close.
The study “proves that it’s past time for leaders and policymakers to move from skepticism to belief and active assistance,” said retired Air Force Col. Vince Alcazar, a member of the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association, which lobbied the Pentagon and Congress for help. Alcazar is a member of the medical affairs committee of the association.
The study was required by Congress in the 2021 defense bill. Now that higher rates have been identified, 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 crew causes cancer, as there are multiple potential confounding factors that cannot be controlled for in this analysis,” such as family histories, smoking or alcohol use.
But aircrews have long asked the Pentagon to take a hard look at some of the environmental factors they are exposed to, such as jet fuel and solvents used to clean and maintain jet parts, sensors and their power sources in the aircraft’s nose cones, and massive radar systems on the decks of the ships they land on.
When Navy Capt. Jim Seaman came home from deployment on an aircraft carrier, his equipment would reek of jet fuel, said his widow, Betty Seaman. The A-6 Intruder pilot died in 2018 at the age of 61 from lung cancer. Betty Seaman still has the gear in storage and it still smells like fuel, “which I love,” she said.
She and others wonder if there is a connection. She said the 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’ve suspected for years. 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 regular required medical checkups and were more likely to be in better health. due to the requirement for military training.
The Pentagon acknowledged that the study had flaws that likely led to fewer 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 early-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 include cases of former aircrew who became ill after leaving the military medical system.
“It is important to note that the results of the study may have differed if additional older ex-servicemen were included,” it said.
To fix that, the Pentagon will now pull data from those registries to add to the total, 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 “carcinogenic toxic or hazardous materials associated with military flight operations,” but also to specify the type of aircraft and the locations where the diagnosed crews served.
After her husband became ill, Betty Seaman asked him if he would have chosen differently, knowing that his service could be related to his cancer.
“I pointedly asked Jim. And he said, without hesitation, ‘I’d still do it’.”