Military pilots, ground crews face higher rates of cancer, Pentagon study says

Oh The Pentagon Study High rates of cancer have been found among military pilots and it has been shown for the first time that ground crews who fuel, maintain and launch these planes are also getting sick.

The data had long been sought by retired military aviators who have raised the alarm for years about the number of air and ground crew members they knew who had cancer. They were told that previous military studies had shown that they were no more at risk than the general American 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 members had an 87 percent higher rate of melanoma and an 87 percent higher rate of thyroid cancer. The rate was 39 percent higher, while male prostate cancer rates were 16 percent higher and female breast cancer rates were 16 percent higher. Overall, aircrew had a 24 percent higher rate of all types of cancer.

The study found that ground crew had a 19 percent higher rate of brain and nervous system cancer, a 15 percent higher rate of thyroid cancer and a 9 percent higher rate of kidney or kidney cancer, while women had a 9 percent higher rate of breast cancer. 7 percent was more. The overall rate of all types of cancer was 3% higher.

An F/A-18 Hornet is seen in the early morning on the deck of the USS George HW Bush aircraft carrier in the Atlantic Ocean on May 12, 2018.

ERIC BARADAT/AFP via Getty Images

Some good news was also reported. Both ground and aircrew had very low rates of lung cancer, and aircrew also had lower rates of bladder and colon cancer.

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

The Pentagon said the new study is the largest and most comprehensive to date. An earlier study looked only at Air Force pilots and found slightly higher rates of cancer, compared to all services and both air and ground crews. Even with the broader view, the Pentagon warns that the actual number of cancer cases is likely to be higher because of gaps in the data, which it says it is working to address. will work.

Retired Air Force Col. Vince Alcazar, a member of the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association, which has lobbied the Pentagon, said the study “demonstrates that the skepticism and active support for leaders and policymakers It’s past time to move on.” And Congress for help. Alcazar serves on the Association’s Medical Issues Committee.

The study was required by Congress in the 2021 defense bill. Now, because higher rates were found, the Pentagon must conduct an even larger review to try to understand why personnel are getting sick.

Isolating possible causes is difficult, and the Pentagon was careful that the study “does not mean that military service in aircrew or ground crew occupations causes cancer, as there are a number of possible confounding factors.” Those that cannot be controlled for in this analysis, such as family history, smoking or alcohol use.

The fighter plane landed at the military airfield.
An F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter jet extends its landing gear to land at the US military airfield in Spangdahlem.

Harold Tuttle/Photo Alliance via Getty Images

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

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

He and others wonder if there is a link. He said the crew would talk about how the ship’s water system would also smell of fuel.

He said he and others have mixed feelings about finally seeing in the data what they’ve suspected for years. But “it has the potential to do very well as far as early communication, early detection,” he said.

The study found that when crew members were diagnosed with cancer, they had a higher chance of survival than members of the general population, which the study reported was due to their regular essential medical check-ups. The earlier the cause was diagnosed, the more likely they were to improve their health. Because of their military fitness requirements.

The Pentagon acknowledged that there were gaps in the research 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 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, which means it did not capture cases of former service 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,” she said.

To remedy that, the Pentagon is now pulling data from those registries to increase the total number, the study said.

The second phase of the study will try to isolate the causes. The 2021 bill requires the Department of Defense not only to identify “carcinogenic toxins or hazardous materials associated with military flight operations,” but also to specify the types of aircraft and the locations where assessment personnel serve. give

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

“I asked Jim the obvious. And he said without hesitation, ‘I’d still do it.'”

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