Elevated Cancer Rates Among U.S. Military Pilots and Ground Crew Highlighted in New Study

Researchers plan a second phase to the study to hopefully determine what is causing the elevated cancer rates among air crew and ground crew.

A recent Pentagon study warns about higher rates of cancer among U.S. Air Force and Navy pilots, as well as ground support crew, but it is not known whether the cases may be related to toxic exposures during their military service.

Data suggests that air crews in the Air Force face a 24% higher risk of cancer, including thyroid cancer, melanoma and prostate cancer, while ground crews face higher rates of brain and nervous system cancers, melanoma, and kidney cancer. However, the mortality rates for cancer were about the same as the U.S. population, according to a recent report (PDF) released by the Department of Defense.

The study, which became public this week at a House Defense Appropriations subcommittee hearing, was mandated by the 2021 defense spending bill, which called for more research into the incidence of cancer diagnosis and mortality among military fixed wing aviators and aviation support personnel. The report represents the Phase I study, which will be followed by a second phase looking deeper into the potential causes.

The study involved a review of data on 156,050 aircrew and 737,891 ground crew between 1992 and 2017. The median age was 41 for aircrew and 26 years old for ground crew.

According to the findings, when compared to the rest of the U.S. population, air crew had an 87% higher risk of melanoma, a 29% higher risk of thyroid cancer, a 16% increased risk of prostate cancer, and a 24% higher rate of cancer overall. Ground crew members has a 19% increased risk of brain and nervous system cancer, a 15% increased risk of thyroid cancer, a 9% higher risk of melanoma and a 9% higher risk of kidney and renal pelvis cancer. Overall, they faced a 3% higher risk of cancer than the rest of the population.

The findings also discovered that aircrew, however, were 56% less likely to die from cancer and ground crew had a 35% lower risk of cancer death when compared to the rest of the U.S. population.

The researchers warned the findings “do not imply that military service in aircrew or ground crew occupations causes cancer, because there are multiple potential confounding factors that could not be controlled for in this analysis.”

Military Firefighter Foam Cancer Concerns

The study’s findings come amid growing concerns over the use of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) used in firefighting foam, which is heavily used by the military during training and response exercises, the fight fuel-based fires.

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Firefighting Foam Lawsuits

Exposure to firefighting foam chemicals may result in an increased risk of cancer for firefighters, military and airport personnel.

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PFAS are commonly called “forever chemicals”, since they are known to build up in the human body, causing a number of different types of cancer and diseases. However, they have been widely used in recent decades in both aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) used to fight petroleum-based fires, as well as fire fighters’ turnout and bunker gear.

Manufacturers of PFAS chemicals and safety equipment now face thousands of fire fighter cancer lawsuits, involving allegations that years of exposure to the chemicals caused testicular cancer, kidney cancer, pancreatic cancer, bladder cancer and other injuries. Although the manufacturers knew or should have known about the PFAS cancer risk, fire fighters allege they withheld important safety information and warnings for decades.

Given common questions of fact and law raised in firefighter lawsuits against chemical manufacturers and other companies involved in the sale of firefighting foam, the litigation is currently centralized before one judge in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, for coordinated pretrial as part of a federal MDL or multidistrict litigation.

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