The Air Force is broadening its investigation into the potential correlation between cancer rates and service members who handled nuclear missiles. This decision comes after an initial evaluation revealed the need for a more thorough examination.
The study was initiated due to reports of illness among those who served. The Air Force will not release the initial findings on cancer rates for another month, but they did announce on Monday that further review is needed.
“Further investigation is necessary” according to initial examinations of the data, stated Lt. Col. Keith Beam, one of many Air Force medical officers who briefed journalists on the missile community cancer review.
Earlier this year, the Air Force conducted a comprehensive investigation to determine if missileers, the launch officers responsible for operating the nation’s underground silo-launched nuclear missiles, were exposed to hazardous substances. This review was prompted by numerous reports from current and former missile launch officers who have been diagnosed with cancer.
As a reaction, teams of doctors were dispatched to every nuclear missile facility to perform numerous examinations of the air, water, soil, and surfaces within and surrounding the three bases: Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, and F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming.
The comprehensive Air Force analysis will examine not only the missile operators, but also the entire missile community, including all individuals who assisted in the ICBM mission.
During a press conference on Friday, the Air Force announced its findings prior to the release. They reported that out of over 2,000 samples of air, water, and soil from the Montana and Wyoming bases, none showed concerning levels of contamination. However, four areas within the underground launch control capsules where the missileers operated were found to have hazardous levels of PCBs. The results from the North Dakota base are still pending.
Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are greasy or wax-like materials that have been classified as a probable cause of cancer by the Environmental Protection Agency.
However, even though the data indicates that the current air, water, and soil are safe, it brings up concerns about potential exposure of previous missile launch officers to the environment. The silos and underground control capsules were constructed in the 1960s and have not been modernized since then.
Colonel Tory Woodard, who leads the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine, stated that it is not possible to go back and conduct tests to accurately measure the levels of certain factors in the ’90s or 2000s, or even in the ’50s or ’60s. However, this data can still be utilized to gain insight into potential risks during those time periods.
Woodard explained that by conducting both sampling and additional data analysis, it will assist the Air Force in developing a risk assessment of potential exposure for former members.
In order to assist with this, the Air Force is broadening its examination of medical records in order to include as many members of the military as feasible. The initial set of data only covers 2001 onwards, when the Department of Defense started using digital medical records. However, the group they aim to include encompasses all individuals who have worked with military nuclear missiles dating back to 1976. This will also involve incorporating data from the Department of Veterans Affairs and state cancer registries.
The Air Force stated that limitations found in the initial dataset are prompting them to broaden their scope in order to capture as many cases as possible, especially among those who have previously served in missile-related career fields.
Overall, the research aims to gather information on every individual who was a part of the missile community between 1976 and 2010.
In the past, previous generations of missile launch officers had expressed concerns about illnesses within their community, but the Air Force’s response this time around is significantly different. Despite multiple reviews by the Air Force, missileers were told for years that there was no reason to worry.
However, the matter gained increased awareness this year when numerous current and former officers, as well as their surviving relatives, joined together and shared their self-reported data on cancer diagnoses. Specifically, 41 launch officers reported being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a type of blood cancer. These families have created a group called the Torchlight Initiative to bring attention to this issue.
The Air Force investigation is examining a wider range of cancer types, however, the amount of self-reported cases of NHL is notable due to the small size of the missile launch officer community. The National Cancer Institute reports that the national average for NHL is 18.7 cases per 100,000 individuals.
According to the Torchlight Initiative, approximately 21,000 individuals have served as missileers since the 1960s. The Air Force estimates that the entire missile community population, including maintainers and security forces, is around 84,000 individuals.
According to the Torchlight Initiative, the recent discoveries regarding air, water, and soil quality are alarming. The missile community is still facing higher than average rates of cancer, and it is crucial for them to have accurate records of their exposure in order to receive proper treatment.
The increased reaction from the Air Force is a result of a significant shift in the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs to more closely examine the problem of exposure to hazardous substances, including radiation and harmful air pollutants, in military jobs.
Sometimes, it takes a bottom-up approach to bring about change. This can be through the efforts of organizations like the Torchlight Initiative, or through the advocacy of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who were exposed to harmful fumes from burning trash at military bases. It can also be done by individual pilots who highlight the large number of sick pilots who flew the same type of aircraft, like the Navy’s E-2 Hawkeye radar plane, to push for more action to address cancer clusters in the military.
One major change in the Air Force’s missileer community is that a significant number of officers who have been diagnosed with cancer are still actively serving. Additionally, many of the current leaders in the missile community have connections to previous missileers who have also been diagnosed with or passed away from cancer.
“I am acquainted with several individuals who have survived non-Hodgkin lymphoma, so I have a great deal of empathy and a strong desire to gain a better understanding,” stated Colonel Barry Little, the leader of the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base. “We are thoroughly investigating every possible avenue.”