Top Gun DOWN: Military pilots have 87% higher risk of melanoma and worse overall cancer rates

Pentagon study shows even ground crews are getting sick

Pilots and ground crews have higher rates of several types of cancer than the average across the US population

A Pentagon study has found high rates of cancer among military pilots and for the first time has shown that ground crews who fuel, maintain and launch those aircraft have also developed life-threatening conditions.

The data had long been sought by retired military aviators, who have raised alarms for years about the number of air and ground crew members they knew who had cancer, but previous military studies showed cancer rates were on par with the general US population.

In its yearlong study of some 900,000 service members who flew on or worked on military aircraft between 1992 and 2017, researchers found that air crew members had an 87 percent higher rate of melanoma and a 39 percent higher rate of thyroid cancer.

Among flight crews, men had a 16 percent higher rate of prostate cancer and women a 16 percent higher rate of breast cancer. Overall, the air crews had a 24 percent higher rate of cancer of all types.

Meanwhile, ground crews had a 19 percent higher rate of brain and nervous system cancers, a 15 percent higher rate of thyroid cancer and a 9 percent higher rate of kidney or renal cancers.

Ground crew women had a 7 percent higher rate of breast cancer,’ according to the 33-page report, which was shared with House lawmakers last month. The overall rate for cancers of all types was 3 percent higher.

The Pentagon said the new study was one of the largest and most comprehensive to date.

An earlier study had examined just Air Force pilots and had found some higher rates of cancer, while this one looked across all services and at both air and ground crews.

Navy Capt. Jim Seaman, an A-6 Intruder pilot, died in 2018 at age 61 of lung cancer. His widow Betty Seaman was part of a group that lobbied Congress and the Pentagon for years to look into the number of cancers aviators and ground crews face

Even with the wider approach, the Pentagon cautioned that the actual number of cancer cases was likely to be even higher because of gaps in the data, which it said it would work to remedy.

The study ‘proves that it’s well past time for leaders and policymakers to move from skepticism to belief and active assistance,’ said retired Air Force Col. Vince Alcazar, a member of the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association

Alcazar serves on his association’s medical issues committee, which had lobbied the Pentagon and Congress for help

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

Isolating potential causes is difficult, and the Pentagon was careful to note that this study ‘does not imply that military service in air crew or ground crew occupations causes cancer,’ said the report.

This is ‘because there are multiple potential confounding factors that could not be controlled for in this analysis,’ such as family histories, smoking, or alcohol use.

But aviation crews have long asked for the Pentagon to examine the environmental factors they are exposed to.

They include jet fuels and solvents used to clean and maintain jet parts, sensors, and their power sources in aircraft nose cones, and the huge radar systems on the decks of the ships they land on.

When Navy Capt. Jim Seaman would come home from a deployment aboard an aircraft carrier, his gear would reek of jet fuel, his widow Betty Seaman said.

The A-6 Intruder pilot died in 2018 at age 61 of lung cancer. Betty Seaman still has his gear stored, and it still smells of fuel, ‘which I love,’ she said.

She and others wonder if there’s a link. She said crews would talk about how even the ship’s water systems would smell of fuel.

She and others have mixed feelings about finally seeing in data what they have suspected for years about the aviation cancers.

But ‘it has the potential to do a lot of good as far as early communication, early detection,’ Seaman said.

A melanoma, a big worry for pilots, who have significantly higher rates of skin cancer, likely as they are exposed to elevated levels of ultraviolet light

The study found that when crew members were diagnosed with cancer, they were more likely to survive than members of the general population.

That may be because they were diagnosed earlier due to regular required medical checkups and were in better health because of military fitness requirements.

The Pentagon acknowledged that the study had gaps that likely led to an undercount 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 flew early-generation jets in the prior decades.

The study also did not include cancer data from the Department of Veterans Affairs or state cancer registries, meaning it misses some people who got sick after their service ended.

Navy A-6 Intruder pilot Jim Seaman did not regret his service, even if it may have been linked to the lung cancer that killed him, according to his widow

To remedy that, the Pentagon is now going to pull data from those registries to add to the total count, the study said.

The second phase of the study will try to isolate causes.

The 2021 bill requires the Defense Department not only to identify ‘the carcinogenic toxicants or hazardous materials associated with military flight operations,’ but also determine the type of aircraft and locations where diagnosed crews served.

After her husband got sick, Betty Seaman asked him if he would have chosen differently, knowing his service might be linked to his cancer.

‘I flat-out asked Jim. And he, without hesitation, said, ‘I would have still done it.’

The US military has been rocked by a number of cancer scares in recent years.

The Pentagon is probing cases of blood cancer among missile teams at nuclear weapons silos in Montana and veterans have reported toxic exposures in everything from contaminated water in California to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Written by James Reinl for The Daily Mail ~ March 20, 2023

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