Higher cancer rates among military pilots and ground crews
WASHINGTON– A Pentagon study found high rates of cancer among military pilots and showed for the first time that the ground crews who power, maintain and launch these planes are also getting sick.
The data had long been sought by retired military airmen who for years raised the alarm about how many air and ground crew members they knew had cancer. They were told that previous military studies had found they were no more at risk than the general US population.
In its year-long study of nearly 900,000 service members who flew or worked on military aircraft between 1992 and 2017, the Pentagon found that aircrew had an 87% higher rate of melanoma and a 39% higher rate of melanoma. % 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, crews 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 cancers, a 15% higher rate of thyroid cancer, and a 9% higher rate of kidney or kidney cancer. kidney, while women had a 7% higher rate of breast cancer. The overall rate of cancers of all types was 3% higher.
Good news has also been reported. Ground crew and air crew had much lower rates of lung cancer, and air crew also had lower rates of bladder and colon cancer.
The data compared service members with 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. An earlier study looked only at Air Force pilots and found higher cancer rates, while this one looked at all departments and air and ground crews. Even with a broader approach, the Pentagon warned that the true number of cancer cases was likely to be even higher due to data gaps, which it would work to fill.
The study “proves that it is high time for leaders and policy makers 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, who lobbied the Pentagon. and Congress for help. Alcazar sits on the association’s medical issues committee.
The study was mandated by Congress in the 2021 defense bill. Now, because higher rates have been found, the Pentagon needs to conduct an even bigger review to try to figure out why aircrews are getting sick. .
It is difficult to isolate potential causes, and the Pentagon was careful to note that this study “does not imply that military service in the aircrew or ground crew professions causes cancer, as there are multiple potential confounders that could not be controlled for in this analysis,” such as family history, smoking or alcohol consumption.
But aviation crews have long called on the Pentagon to take a close look at some of the environmental factors to which they are exposed, such as jet fuels and solvents used to clean and maintain jet aircraft parts, sensors and their sources of pollution. power in the nose cones of planes, and the huge radar systems on the decks of the ships they land on.
When Navy Captain Jim Seaman returned from deployment aboard an aircraft carrier, his gear reeked of jet fuel, his widow Betty Seaman said. The A-6 Intruder pilot died in 2018 at age 61 of lung cancer. Betty Seaman always has her gear stowed and it always smells like fuel, “which I love,” she said.
She and others wonder if there is a connection. She said crews would talk about how even the ship’s water systems would smell fuel.
She said she and others had mixed feelings about finally seeing in the data what they had 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 cancer. required regular medical check-ups and were more likely to be in better health. because of their military fitness requirements.
The Pentagon acknowledged that the study had flaws that likely led to an undercount of cancer cases.
The military health system database used in the study did not have reliable cancer data through 1990, so it may not have included pilots who flew jets from first generation 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 fell ill after leaving the military medical system.
“It is important to note that the results of the study might have differed had other older former service members been included,” he said.
To remedy this, the Pentagon will now extract data from these registers to add to the total count, according to the study.
The second phase of the study will attempt to isolate the causes. The 2021 bill requires the Department of Defense not only to identify “carcinogenic toxic substances or hazardous materials associated with military flight operations,” but also to determine the type of aircraft and locations where diagnosed crews served .
After her husband fell ill, Betty Seaman asked him if he would have chosen differently, knowing that his service might be related to his cancer.
“I asked Jim outright. And he, without hesitation, said, ‘I would have done it anyway.’