Unusually high cancer rates found in military pilots and ground crews

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A Pentagon study has found higher rates of cancer among military pilots and shown for the first time that the ground crews who fuel, maintain and launch those planes are also getting sick.

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The data had long been sought by retired military aviators, who for years raised the alarm about the number of air and ground crew members they knew had cancer. They were told that earlier military studies had found they were at no greater risk than the general US population.

The Pentagon, in its year-long study of nearly 900,000 service members who flew or worked on military aircraft between 1992 and 2017, found that air crew members had an 87% higher rate of melanoma and a 39% higher rate of thyroid cancer , while the rate of prostate cancer was 16% higher among men and the rate of breast cancer was 16% higher among women. Overall, the rate of all types of cancer was 24% higher among aircrew.

The study showed that ground crew had a 19% higher rate of cancer of the brain and nervous system, a 15% higher rate of thyroid cancer and a 9% higher rate of kidney or renal cancer, while breast cancer rates were higher among women. 7% more. The overall rate for all types of cancer was 3% higher.

Also got some good news as well. Both ground and air crew had very low rates of lung cancer, and air crew also had low rates of bladder and colon cancer.

The data compared service members to the general US population after adjusting for age, sex and race.

The Pentagon said the new study was the largest and most comprehensive to date. An earlier study looked only at Air Force pilots and found somewhat higher rates of cancer, whereas this one looked at all services and both air and ground crews. Even with the broadest view, the Pentagon cautioned that the actual number of cancer cases was likely even higher because of gaps in the data, which it said it would work to remedy.

Retired Air Force Col. Vince Alcazar, a member of the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association, which lobbies the Pentagon, said, “The study proves that this is a good time for leaders and policymakers to move from skepticism to trust and active assistance.” ” And Congress to help. Alcazar serves on the Association’s Medical Issues Committee.

The 2021 Defense Bill required the study by Congress. Now, because the higher rates were found, the Pentagon must conduct an even bigger review to try to understand why employees are getting sick.

It is difficult to isolate possible causes, and the Pentagon was careful to note that this study “does not mean that military service in the air crew or ground crew occupations causes cancer, as there are many potential confounders.” There are factors that cannot be controlled for in this analysis,” such as family history, smoking or alcohol use.

But aviation workers have long asked the Pentagon to look more closely at certain environmental factors, such as the jet fuel and solvents used in jet parts, sensors and aircraft nose cones to clean and maintain their power sources. and largely radar systems on the decks of the ships they land on.

His widow, Betty Seaman, said that when Navy Captain Jim Seaman came home from deployment aboard an aircraft carrier, his gear would smell of jet fuel. The A-6 Intruder pilot died of lung cancer in 2018 at the age of 61. Betty Seaman still has her gear stored and it still smells of fuel, “which I love,” she said.

He and others wonder if there is a link. She said the crew would talk about how the fuel smelled in the ship’s water system as well.

She said she and others have mixed feelings about finally seeing data that they’ve doubted for years about aviation cancer. But “it has the potential to do very well 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 of the regularly required medical screening. were diagnosed and they were more likely to be in better health. Because of their military fitness requirements.

The Pentagon acknowledged that the study had gaps that likely led to an underestimation of the number of cancer cases.

The military Heath System database used in the study did not have reliable cancer data until 1990, so it could not include pilots who flew early-generation jets in prior 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 became ill after leaving the military medical system.

“It is important to note that the results of the study may have been different if additional older former service members were included,” it said.

To remedy this, the Pentagon is now going to pull data from those registries to add to the total number, the study says.

The second phase of the study will try to isolate the causes. The 2021 bill would require the Department of Defense to not only identify “carcinogenic toxins or hazardous materials associated with military flight operations,” but also determine the types of aircraft and locations where diagnosed crews served.

After her husband became ill, Betty Seaman asked him if he would have chosen differently, knowing that his service could be linked to his cancer.

“I asked Jim straight up. And he said without hesitation, ‘I still would have done it.’

Unusually high cancer rates found in military pilots and ground crews

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