Higher cancer rates among military pilots and ground crew
WASHINGTON (AP) – A Pentagon study has found high rates of cancer among military pilots and has shown for the first time that ground crew who fuel, maintain and take off these planes also get sick.
The data had long been sought by retired military aviators, who for years have been sounding the alarm about the number of known air and ground crew members with cancer. They were told that previous military studies had found they were at no greater risk than the general US population.
In its year-long study of nearly 900,000 soldiers who flew or worked on military aircraft between 1992 and 2017, the Pentagon found that flight crew members had an 87% higher rate of melanoma and a 39% higher rate of thyroid cancer than men a 16% higher rate of prostate cancer and women a 16% higher rate of breast cancer. Overall, flight crews had a 24% higher rate of all types of cancer.
The study showed that ground crew 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 exhibited. The overall rate for cancer of all types was 3% higher.
There was also good news to report. Both ground and air crews had far lower rates of lung cancer, and air crews also had lower rates of bladder and colon cancers.
The data compared service members 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 yet. A previous study looked only at Air Force pilots and found some higher rates of cancer, while this study looked at all services and both air and ground personnel. Despite the broader approach, the Pentagon warned that the true number of cancer cases was likely to be even higher due to gaps in the data it was working to fill.
The study “proves that it is high time for business leaders and policymakers to shift from skepticism to belief and active support,” said retired Air Force Colonel Vince Alcazar, a member of the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association, the campaigned for the Pentagon and Congress for help. Alcazar is a member of the Association’s Medical Affairs Committee.
The study was required by Congress in the 2021 Defense Act. Now that higher rates have been found, the Pentagon needs to conduct an even more comprehensive review to try to understand why crews are getting sick.
Isolating possible causes is difficult, and the Pentagon has carefully indicated that this study “does not imply that military service in aircrew or ground crew occupations causes cancer because there are several potential confounders that could not be controlled for in this analysis. ’ such as family histories, smoking or alcohol consumption.
But aviation crews have long asked the Pentagon to scrutinize some of the environmental factors they face, such as radar systems on the decks of the ships they land on.
When Navy Capt. Jim Seaman returned home from a mission aboard an aircraft carrier, his gear reeked of kerosene, his widow Betty Seaman said. The A-6 Intruder pilot died of lung cancer in 2018 at the age of 61. Betty Seaman still has his gear in storage and it still smells like fuel, “which I love,” she said.
You and others wonder if there’s a connection. She said crews were talking about the fact that even the ship’s water systems smelled of fuel.
She said she and others have mixed feelings about finally seeing in data what they have suspected about flight cancer for years. But “it has the potential to do a lot of good in terms of early communication and early detection,” she said.
The study found that crew members who were diagnosed with cancer were more likely to survive than members of the general population, which the study says is because they were diagnosed earlier and were more likely to be in better health due to periodic medical screenings required because of their military fitness requirements.
The Pentagon acknowledged that the study had gaps that likely led to undercounting 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 had flown 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 capture cases of ex-crew members who became ill after leaving the military medical system.
“It is important to note that the study results might have been different if additional elderly veterans had been included,” it said.
To remedy this, the Pentagon will now pull data from these registers to add to the total, the study said.
The second phase of the study attempts to isolate causes. The 2021 bill will require the Department of Defense to not only identify “the carcinogenic toxins or hazardous materials associated with military air operations,” but also to identify the aircraft type and locations where the diagnosed crews have served.
After her husband fell ill, Betty Seaman asked him if he had changed his mind, knowing his ministry could be linked to his cancer.
“I asked Jim directly. And he said without hesitation, ‘I would have done it anyway.’”