A recent piece by the Associated Press claims to have found military briefing slides that show a connection between work at military silos in Montana and an increased risk of blood cancer.
Who was at increased risk?
This report focused on missileers assigned to the Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, a base that houses 150 Minuteman III ballistic missile silos. Missileers who serve at these types of bases go deep underground and sometimes stay for days, waiting in case of an order from the president to launch the missiles. This is one of three bases in the country.
According to slides from a U.S. Space Force Lieutenant briefing in January obtained by the AP, nine missileers were diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The military official recognized that this was a “disproportionate” and “concerning” amount that could indicate a connection between service and the illness. After publication of the AP piece a spokeswoman for the Air Force has pushed back on the report, noting the slides were used as part of an initial attempt to understand what is going on and that the connection is not yet confirmed.
Why is a connection possible?
As noted in the report by the AP, this type of blood cancer is rare and more likely to occur in the elderly. Two pieces of evidence that support a connection between service and an increased risk of cancer include:
- Physicians are diagnosing larger percentages of missileers than civilians. Missileers are a relatively small portion of the Air Force. The Malmstrom base has about 400 assigned missileers and nine have this illness. This is striking because less than 20 out of 100,000 people in the US develop this type of cancer annually US.
- Missileers are getting sick at a younger age. Although the military has not provided information on those who have this illness, we do know their rankings. Based on the general age an individual achieves this ranking, it appears servicemembers are getting ill between their 30s and 40s.
This is much younger than the median age for this type of blood cancer, which is currently 67.
Will these veterans get health benefits for their illness?
Changes to the law may help better ensure these veterans and active-duty military servicemembers get the health care coverage they need to battle this illness. The recently passed Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxins (PACT) Act expands health care coverage for veterans who were exposed to toxic chemicals. Advocates are hopeful that the veterans who develop cancer after working in these nuclear missile bases will qualify for benefits under the PACT Act.
Lawmakers are also stepping forward to voice support for servicemembers and veterans who may have been expose to these dangerous toxins. Upon review of the report, Montana Senator Jon Tester called on military officials to provide more information and support.
We are still learning more about this developing issue. At this time, questions that remain include:
- Were others exposed? The information only addresses one base. Other bases have similar roles and materials. We do not yet know if there is an increased risk of cancer at these and other sites.
- Is lymphoma the only illness? It is possible that exposure to these toxins led to an increased rate of other cancers, not just this rare form of blood cancer.
- Will these servicemembers and veterans get coverage? Although the PACT eased the barrier to coverage, we are still not certain those effected in this situation will qualify.
At this time, anyone who worked in a missileer or supporting role is wise to keep track of health records. Those who develop an illness should keep copies of medical documents and related expenses. These will be helpful in the event there is an opportunity to move forward and hold whoever is responsible for this exposure event accountable for any potential wrongdoing.