Alarming Cancer Rates for Pilots and Ground Crews Draw Lawmaker Scrutiny: ‘Let’s Get Our Arms Around This’

A longtime House Appropriations Committee member is urging the Department of the Air Force to ask for funding amid new reports and studies that show alarming cancer rates for service members.

Ranking member Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., told Air Force and Space Force leaders during a House Appropriations Defense subcommittee hearing Tuesday that the committee wants to find ways to fund and provide resources to address the health issues identified in those newly unveiled studies.

“Let’s get our arms around this,” McCollum told the officials. “Let’s work together. We have a big military health budget. … I know that members are concerned about this.”

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McCollum’s plea, directed at Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, Chief of Staff Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown Jr. and Chief of Space Operations Gen. B. Chance Saltzman, comes as the Air Force and Space Force both face reports about cancer concerns tied to military service.

Results of a Pentagon study, shared with the House Armed Services Committee last month and first reported on by The Associated Press, detailed that pilots and ground crew members alike face elevated rates of cancer diagnoses.

More than 900,000 service members who piloted or maintained military aircraft between 1992 and 2017 were surveyed for the study. The findings revealed that aircrew had an 87% higher rate of melanoma and a 39% higher rate of thyroid cancer. Overall, aircrews had a 24% higher rate of all types of cancer.

The study detailed that ground crews had a 19% higher rate of brain and nervous system cancers, a 15% higher rate of thyroid cancer, and a 9% higher rate of kidney, renal and melanoma cancers. The overall rate for cancers of all types was 3% higher.

Brown told McCollum the Air Force is collecting data and asking “more and more questions” to figure out the causes. He said this includes pulling in data from the Department of Veterans Affairs to uncover health trends that develop after service members separate.

“Pulling in that data will help us better get a sense of what’s happening not just to our aviators, but really across the Air Force,” Brown said.

Additionally, the Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine said last month it is conducting a study examining a potential link between certain cancers and missileer service. That follows January reports of a presentation by a Space Force officer that detailed potential exposure risks, cancer diagnoses and details of 36 cases — including 10 with non-Hodgkin lymphoma — involving veterans who served at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana.

More than 400 of the Space Force’s current officers are former Air Force missileers, a sizable figure when the Space Force consists of just more than 8,000 military personnel. Saltzman told Military.com in an exclusive interview earlier this month that he is encouraging any Space Force Guardians who are worried about cancers tied to their service to get a health exam.

“If you think you need help, go get help and go get screened. Go see a health professional and ask all your questions, and get the help that you need,” Saltzman told Military.com. “I think that’s the most important thing. We don’t need to wait for a study to emphasize that.”

Kendall told House appropriators that the results of the missileer study will likely take a year, and that researchers are working to gather data and inform those who are concerned.

“We’re trying to get out to everyone who might have been affected by that,” Kendall told McCollum. “We’re making sure that we bring in some outside experts to work with us to ensure that the study is thorough, transparent and gets valid results so that we can tackle that problem. It’s of great concern to us.”

— Thomas Novelly can be reached at thomas.novelly@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.

Related: ‘Go Get Screened’: Space Force Chief Urges Missileers to Get Tested as Cancer Study Underway

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