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Pentagon Study Shows Increased Cancer Rates in Military Pilots and Ground Crews

For years, retired military aviators have questioned the increasing number of crew members getting cancer. However, earlier military studies had dismissed the claims, stating that they were not at greater risk than the general U.S. population.

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However, a recent Pentagon study revealed some shocking facts. The study found elevated cancer rates in military pilots and, for the first time, ground crews responsible for fuelling, maintaining, and launching the aircraft.

The Pentagon Study

The Pentagon conducted a year-long study consisting of nearly 900,000 service members who flew on or worked on military aircraft from 1992 to 2017. The study revealed that aircrew members had a 24% higher cancer rate. This included an 87% higher rate of melanoma and a 39% higher rate of thyroid cancer.

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In addition, men had a 16% higher rate of prostate cancer, while women had a 16% higher rate of breast cancer. 

On the other hand, ground crews showed a 3% higher overall rate for cancers. The study showed 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 renal cancers. Similarly, women also had a 7% higher rate of breast cancer. Numbers do not lie – it is a severe problem.

The Pentagon
The Pentagon seems to be changing its thinking when it comes to cancer prevention in Airmen and Sailors.

Nevertheless, the study revealed some positive news as well. Air and ground crews had lower lung cancer rates, while air crews also had lower rates of bladder and colon cancers.

How is this study any different?

Unlike the earlier study, which only analyzed Air Force pilots, this study examined all services across air and ground crews. However, the Pentagon warned that the actual number of cancer cases could be higher due to gaps in the data – something it plans to address.

Retired Air Force Col. Vince Alcazar, a Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association member, expressed that the study is proof that leaders and policymakers need. There is a need to shift from skepticism to belief and take active measures to assist those affected. Alcazar, who serves on the association’s medical issues committee, lobbied the Pentagon and Congress for assistance.

Military Service: A cause for cancer?

Congress mandated the study in the 2021 defence bill. However, since the survey revealed elevated cancer rates, the Pentagon must conduct a more extensive investigation to understand why air and ground crews are becoming sick.

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The Pentagon acknowledged the challenges of isolating the potential causes of the increased cancer rates. Furthermore, it emphasized that the study does not suggest that military service leads to cancer. Several factors, such as smoking, alcohol use, and family history, could not be controlled in the analysis.

Vietnam 1966. Its not just modern pilots who are vulnerable to different types of cancer, according to a Pentagon study. (Air Force)

Nevertheless, aviation crews have long urged the Pentagon to investigate environmental factors to which they are exposed. Some hypothesize that jet fuels and solvents used in cleaning and maintaining aircraft parts contribute to cancer. Additionally, there are concerns about exposure to power sources in aircraft nose cones and large radar systems.

The study’s findings have prompted mixed feelings among those who have long suspected a link between aviation and cancer. Still, they hope the study will lead to early detection and improved communication.

Gaps in the study

According to the study, crew members diagnosed with cancer had a higher survival rate than the general population. The study attributes this to the crew members being diagnosed earlier due to mandatory medical checkups.

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 the prior decades. 

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The study also did not include cancer data from the Department of Veterans Affairs or state cancer registries. It means that the study did not capture cases of former crew members who got sick after leaving the military medical system.

Capt. Jim Seaman seen here in front of his jet sadly passed away from lung cancer in 2018. His wife believes it was due to aviation fuel (Betty Seaman)

The Pentagon acknowledged that the study had gaps that likely led to an undercount of cancer cases. “It is important to note that study results may have differed had additional older former service members been included,” it said. To remedy that, the Pentagon will pull data from those registries to add to the total count.

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The second phase of the study will try to isolate causes. The 2021 bill requires the Defence Department not only to identify “the carcinogenic toxicants or hazardous materials associated with military flight operations” but also to determine the type of aircraft and locations where diagnosed crews served.

Capt. Jim Seaman: A True Hero

The widow of Navy Capt. Jim Seaman, who died of lung cancer in 2018, believes there may be a connection between his illness and his deployment aboard an aircraft carrier. She noted that her husband’s gear would reek of jet fuel, and even the ship’s water systems smelled of fuel.

During his illness, Betty Seaman asked her husband if he regretted his military service due to a possible link to cancer. He replied with a clear and unwavering answer: he would still choose to serve without hesitation.