Pentagon research uncovered high rates of cancer among military pilots and revealed for the first time that ground crews who refuel, repair, and launch these aircraft are also becoming ill.
Retired military aviators who have raised concerns for years about the number of air and ground crew members they knew who had cancer had long requested the information. They were informed that prior military research had determined they were not at a higher risk than the overall U.S. population.
In its one-year study of nearly 900,000 service members who flew on or worked on military aircraft between 1992 and 2017, the Pentagon discovered that air crew 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 had a 16% higher rate of breast cancer. Overall, the incidence of all forms of cancer was 24% higher among air crews.
The study revealed that ground crews had a 19% higher incidence of brain and nervous system malignancies, a 15% higher incidence of thyroid cancer, and a 9% higher incidence of kidney or renal cancers, while women had a 7% higher incidence of breast cancer. The total incidence of cancer was 3 percent higher.
There was also some good news reported. Both ground and air workers had much reduced lung cancer rates, with air crews also having lower rates of bladder and colon cancer. After controlling for age, gender, and race, the statistics compared service personnel to the overall U.S. population.
According to the Pentagon, the new study is one of the largest and most exhaustive to date. An earlier study focused just on Air Force pilots and discovered elevated cancer rates, whereas this study examined all services and both air and ground workers. Even with the broader approach, the Military noted that the real number of cancer cases was likely to be significantly higher due to data gaps, which it pledged to close.
The study “demonstrates that it is past time for leaders and policymakers to shift from skepticism to belief and active assistance,” according to retired Air Force Col. Vince Alcazar, a member of the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association, which had lobbied the Pentagon and Congress for assistance. Alcazar is on the medical issues committee of the association.
The study found that when crew members were diagnosed with cancer, they were more likely to survive than members of the general population. The study hypothesized that this was due to the fact that they were diagnosed earlier due to required medical checkups and were more likely to be in better health due to military fitness requirements.
The Pentagon acknowledged that the study’s flaws led to a probable undercount of cancer cases. The database of the military health system utilized in the study did not contain reliable cancer data until 1990, therefore, it may not have included pilots who flew jets of earlier generations.
In addition, the study did not include cancer data from the Department of Veterans Affairs or state cancer registries, meaning it did not include cases of former crew members who became ill after leaving the military medical system.
“It is crucial to emphasize that study outcomes could have been different if additional older former service members had been included,” it stated. According to the report, the Military will now gather data from these registries to contribute to the total count.
In the second phase of the study, causes will be isolated. The bill of 2021 mandates that the Department of Defense not only identify “the carcinogenic toxicants or hazardous materials linked with military flying operations” but also determine the type of aircraft and areas where crews with cancer served.