The data has long been sought after by retired military aviators who have sounded the alarm for years about the number of air and ground crew members who knew they had cancer.
They were told that previous military studies had found that they were no more at risk than the general US population.
In its year-long study of nearly 900,000 service members who flew or worked in military aircraft between 1992 and 2017, the Pentagon found that aircrew members had an 87% higher rate of melanoma and a 39% higher rate of melanoma. thyroid cancer, while men had a 16% higher rate of prostate cancer and women a 16% higher rate of breast cancer.
Overall, aircrew had a 24% higher rate of cancer of all types.
The study showed that ground crews had a 19% higher rate of brain and nervous system cancer, a 15% higher rate of thyroid cancer, and a 9% higher rate of kidney or kidney cancer, while women had a 7% higher rate of breast cancer. The overall rate of cancers of all types was 3% higher.
Good news was also reported. Both ground and air crews had much lower rates of lung cancer, and aircrew also had lower rates of bladder and colon cancer.
The data compared service members to the general US population after adjusting for age, gender and race.
The Pentagon said the new study was one of the largest and most comprehensive to date. A previous study had looked at only Air Force pilots and found some higher rates of cancer, whereas this one looked at all services and both air and ground crews.
Even with the broader approach, the Pentagon warned that the actual number of cancer cases is likely to be even higher due to gaps in the data, which it said it would work to remedy.
The study “proves that it is 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 United States Fighter Pilots Association. Red River Valley, which had lobbied the Pentagon and Congress for help.
Mr. Alcazar is a member of the association’s medical affairs committee.
The study was required by Congress in the 2021 defense bill. Now, because higher rates have been found, the Pentagon must conduct an even bigger review to try to understand why aircrews are getting sick.
It is difficult to isolate possible causes, and the Pentagon was careful to note that this study “does 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,” such as family history, smoking, or alcohol use.
But aviation crews have long called for the Pentagon to take a close look at some of the environmental factors they are exposed to, such as jet fuels and the solvents used to clean and maintain aircraft parts, sensors and their power sources in the cones of the planes, and the huge radar systems on the decks of the ships they land on.
The study found that when crew members were diagnosed with cancer, they were more likely to survive than members of the general population, which the study suggested was because they were diagnosed earlier due to required regular medical checkups and they were more likely to be in better health due to their military fitness requirements.
The Pentagon acknowledged that the study had gaps that likely led to an undercount of cancer cases.
Betty Seaman’s husband, Jim, a former Navy pilot, died of lung cancer at age 61 in 2018.
She said that her clothing and equipment always reeked of aviation fuel.
Ms Seaman and others wonder if there is a link. She said the crews would talk about how even the ship’s water systems would smell like fuel.