Air Force Expands Investigation into Possible Cancer Link to Missile Bases and Jobs

Airman repels a rescue harness down the personnel access shaft.
Airman repels a rescue harness down the personnel access shaft, Dec. 11, 2021, at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Cody Dowell)

Air Force officials are now investigating whether service members in a wide assortment of jobs who have served at any of the nation's intercontinental ballistic missile bases are at risk for Non-Hodgkin lymphoma and other cancers. The news comes about a month after a senior officer circulated a briefing about a possible link between service and cancer risks.

The Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine will take "a comprehensive look across multiple Air Force Specialty Codes, locations and possible additional cancer" concerns raised by the missileer community at bases in North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming, according to a Wednesday press release.

"While we continue to work through this process, service members, their family members and former service members who may have concerns or questions are encouraged to speak with their health care providers," Gen. Thomas A. Bussiere, head of Air Force Global Strike Command, said in the press release.

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Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana; F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming; and Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, maintain and operate more than 400 missile silos from which the country's nuclear-capable Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles can be fired.

At these duty stations, missileers are exposed to a variety of chemicals and toxins, ranging from paint in small spaces to fumes from burning classified documents to aerial asbestos and radon exposure.

Last month, a Space Force officer detailed those exposure risks and various cancer diagnoses received by veterans who served at Malmstrom in a briefing, warning of a possible link between their service and cancer.

The Space Force officer detailed 36 cases in which missileers who had been stationed at Malmstrom during their careers were diagnosed with a type of cancer.

Ten of the airmen who have received cancer diagnoses, according to his briefing, developed Non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Two developed Hodgkin lymphoma, and 24 developed another form of cancer. Overall, eight of the 36 missileers with cancer diagnoses, the majority of whom served at Malmstrom sometime between 1997 and 2007, have died.

This is not the first time the military has investigated a link between missileer service and cancer clusters.

In 2001, the Air Force Institute for Operational Health did a site evaluation and sampled for potential chemical and biological contaminants at Malmstrom after cases of various cancers from missileers were reported -- including cervical cancer, thyroid cancer, Hodgkin lymphoma and two cases of Non-Hodgkin lymphoma in which those patients died, according to a report issued in 2005.

The Air Force said in 2005, following the release of the report, that "there is not sufficient evidence to consider the possibility of a cancer clustering to justify further investigation" and that "sometimes illnesses tend to occur by chance alone."

But the Air Force Medical Service, which is conducting the new "Missile Community Cancer Study," now says those conclusions may be outdated. Under a frequently asked question section on the service's website, the office says that the findings from two decades ago may have changed.

"We acknowledge time has passed and have the responsibility to investigate any potential service-related risks to Airmen, Guardians or their dependents' health," the website says. "We take this responsibility seriously."

The issue is of great concern to the newly created Space Force, as more than 400 of the service's current officers are former missileers.

Retired Col. Jim Warner, a former missileer and the executive director of the Association of Air Force Missileers, wrote that his group has been closely following the issue and is helping the Air Force with its investigation in a note on the association's Facebook page. He also wonders how far back the link to cancer clusters may go.

"Is it limited to operators or does the impact go into the maintenance, security forces, and support career fields? Is this a Minuteman problem or does it go back to Atlas, Titan, and Peacekeeper?" Warner wrote Feb. 3. "I will defer to the Air Force to provide the answers. Sadly, this issue will be with us for many years to come."

The Titan II missile was housed in 54 sites at four military bases across the country, including the former Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, Little Rock Air Force Base in Arkansas, and McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas, from 1962 through the mid-1980s.

From 1975 to 1979, there were 125 leaks of propellant or oxidizer -- a substance used in the launch process -- on Titan II missiles that caused major health problems among crew members, according to the Air Force.

In 1978, a leak of an oxidizer used during launch killed two airmen and forced the evacuation of 1,345 residents of Rock, Kansas, near McConnell, according to an Air Force investigation into the accident.

In an interview with last month, Randy Shircel, a former Air Force facilities technician who served twice in missile silos for the Minuteman's predecessor, Titan II, said former service members whose workspaces were in the silos were exposed to highly toxic propellants and have developed non-cancerous tumors, lung and thyroid cancer, Non-Hodgkin lymphoma and Parkinson's disease. Spills or leaks of propellant occurred frequently, contaminating silos for up to six weeks -- a period in which the missiles were manned 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

"The only thing the Air Force was worried about was that our missiles stayed on alert and were ready to fire," Shircel said.

The Air Force Global Strike Command Surgeon General, Col. Lee D. Williames, said it is too early to tell how long this new study will take, according to Wednesday's press release. The first phase of the investigation will examine Department of Defense medical data, DoD and Department of Veterans Affairs Cancer Registry data, as well as VA medical data.

The next phase of the study will examine mortality data and cancer registries. The Air Force has also created a website that addresses concerns for current and former missileers and their families and allows users to send information to the Air Force Surgeon General's Office.

"It is my personal pledge to all Strikers, Airmen, Guardians and family members -- past and present -- to remain transparent throughout this process, and we will continue to maintain an open dialogue," Bussiere said in the press release. "This is my priority."

-- Patricia Kime contributed to this report

-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.

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