Cancer Rates Are Higher Among Military Pilots and Ground Crew

The most comprehensive analysis to date found that United States military air and ground crews have higher rates of all types of cancer than the general population.

For years, military pilots have questioned and expressed concerns about the high number of fellow aviators diagnosed with cancer. However, previous studies examining cancer rates among U.S. Air force crews proved inconclusive.

Yet, 2021 research conducted by the Air Force found fighter pilots and their flying crew members were more likely to be diagnosed with cancer than non-flying personnel and the general population. However, this study only looked at service members who flew in aircraft and not ground crew personnel.

Now, a new comprehensive Pentagon study has revealed that military aviators and ground crews who maintain and fuel aircraft have a higher rate of all types of cancer than civilians.

According to the Associated Press (AP), the yearlong study — mandated by Congress in the 2021 defense bill — involved nearly 900,000 military service members who flew or worked around aircraft between 1992 to 2017. The investigation compared service member cancer rates with cancer data from the general population and adjusted for age, race, and sex.

Overall, those who flew airplanes had a 24% higher rate of all types of cancer than the general population. Moreover, ground crew members’ cancer rates were 3% higher than rates among civilians.

After breaking down the data, investigators found that air crew members had a 39% higher rate of thyroid cancer and an 87% higher rate of melanoma compared to civilians.

In addition, male air crew members had a 16% higher rate of prostate cancer, while females had a 16% higher rate of breast cancer.

The study found that ground crew members had a 9% higher rate of kidney or renal cancers, a 15% higher rate of thyroid cancer, and a 19% higher rate of brain and nervous system cancers than civilians. Moreover, female ground crew personnel had a 7% higher rate of breast cancer.

The data also revealed that air crews had lower rates of colon and bladder cancers, and both ground and air crews had lower lung cancer rates.

On the upside, cancer survival rates were higher among military personnel than the general public. This was likely due to early detection through required medical exams and better physical fitness among people serving in the military.

According to the AP, the Pentagon notes that because of gaps in data, the actual number of cancer cases among flight and ground crews was likely higher.

The Pentagon also says that because the analysis did not control for other cancer risk factors — such as family history, smoking, and alcohol use — the results do not suggest that military air and ground crew occupations cause cancer.

However, the Defense Department will initiate a more extensive study investigating potential toxins or hazardous materials and determining the locations and aircraft types that may play a role in the increased cancer rates.

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