A Pentagon study found high rates of cancer among military pilots and showed for the first time that ground crews who refuel, maintain and launch those planes are also getting sick.
The data have long been sought by retired military pilots who have been sounding the alarm for years about the number of air and ground crew members they know who have cancer. They were told that earlier military research had found they were no more at risk than the general American population.
In a 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 had an 87 percent higher rate of melanoma and a 100 percent higher rate of thyroid cancer 39%, while men have a 16% higher chance of developing prostate cancer and women have a 16% higher chance of developing breast cancer. Overall, flight crew members had a 24 percent higher chance of developing various types of cancer.
The study showed that ground crew members had a 19 percent higher risk of brain and nervous system cancer, a 15 percent higher risk of thyroid cancer, and a 9 percent higher risk of kidney or kidney cancer, while women had a higher risk of cancer 7% of breast cancer. The overall incidence rate for all cancer types was 3 percent higher.
There was also some good news. Both ground crew and aircrew had much lower rates of lung cancer, and aircrew also had lower rates of bladder and colon cancer.
The data compared active-duty military personnel to the general U.S. population after adjusting for age, sex and race.
The Pentagon said the new study is one of the largest and most comprehensive to date. While an earlier study looked only at Air Force pilots and found certain individuals had higher rates of cancer, this study looked at all services and air and ground personnel. Even with a broader approach, the Pentagon warned that the actual number of cancer cases could be higher because of gaps in the data, and said it would work to close the gap.
Retired Air Force Colonel Vince Alcazar, a member of the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association who lobbied the Pentagon, said the study “demonstrates that it is long overdue for leaders and policymakers to move from skepticism to conviction and active assistance” and Congress to seek help . Alcazar serves on the association’s Committee on Medical Issues.
Congress mandated the study in the 2021 National Defense Act. Now, with higher rates found, the Pentagon must conduct a larger review to try to understand why crew members became ill.
Isolating underlying causes is difficult, and the Pentagon is careful to note that the study “does not imply that military service in aircrew or ground crew occupations causes cancer because there are multiple potential confounding factors that were not controlled for in this analysis,” such as family history, smoking or drinking.
But aviation crews have long asked the Pentagon to keep a close eye on some of the environmental factors they are exposed to, such as jet fuel and solvents used to clean and maintain jet components, sensors and their power supplies in the nose cone of the plane, and the huge Radar system on deck of ship.
Betty Seaman, widow of Navy Capt. Jim Seaman, said that when Captain Jim Seaman returned home from a deployment on an aircraft carrier, his equipment emitted jet fuel smell. A-6 Raider pilot died of lung cancer in 2018 at age 61. Betty Seaman’s gear is still in storage and still smells of fuel, “which I love,” she said.
She and others wondered if there was a connection. She said crew members would talk about how even the ship’s water system smelled of fuel.
She said she and others have mixed feelings about finally seeing in the data what they had suspected about aviation cancer for years. But “it has the potential to have a lot of benefits in terms of early communication, early detection,” she said.
The study found that when seafarers were diagnosed with cancer, they were more likely than the general population to survive, the study suggests, because they were diagnosed earlier due to regular required medical check-ups and were more likely to be at a more advanced age. Good health because of their military fitness requirements.
The Pentagon acknowledged that the study had flaws that may have led to an undercount of cancer cases.
The military health system database used in the study didn’t have reliable cancer data until 1990, so it likely didn’t include pilots who flew early jets in previous decades.
The study also did not include cancer data from the Department of Veterans Affairs or the National Cancer Registry, meaning it did not capture cases of former sailors who became ill after leaving the military medical system.
“It is important to note that the study results may have been different had more older veterans been included,” it said.
To address this, the Pentagon will now pull data from those registries to add to the total, the study said.
The second phase of the research will try to find out why. The 2021 bill requires the Department of Defense to identify not only “carcinogenic poisons or hazardous substances associated with military flight operations,” but also the type of aircraft and the location of service of the confirmed flight crew.
After her husband fell ill, Betty Seaman asked if he would have made different choices, knowing his services might be linked to his cancer.
“I asked Jim straight up. Without hesitation, he said, ‘I’d still do it.'”