At This AFB, Cancer Diagnoses Abound. Now, a New Find

Air Force finds unsafe carcinogen levels at Montana's Malmstrom nuclear missiles base
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Aug 8, 2023 8:49 AM CDT
Air Force Finds Unsafe Carcinogen Levels at Nuke Base
In this image, Air Force personnel work on an intercontinental ballistic missile during a test on Sept. 22, 2020, at a launch facility near Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, Montana.   (Senior Airman Daniel Brosam/US Air Force via AP, File)

The Air Force has detected unsafe levels of a likely carcinogen at underground launch control centers at a Montana nuclear missile base where a striking number of men and women have reported cancer diagnoses. A new cleanup effort has now been ordered, reports the AP. The discovery "is the first from an extensive sampling of active US intercontinental ballistic missile bases to address specific cancer concerns raised by missile community members," Air Force Global Strike Command said in a release Monday. In those samples, two launch facilities at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana showed PCB levels higher than the thresholds recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency. PCBs are oily or waxy substances that have been identified as a likely carcinogen by the EPA.

In response, Gen. Thomas Bussiere, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, has directed "immediate measures to begin the cleanup process for the affected facilities and mitigate exposure by our airmen and [Space Force] Guardians to potentially hazardous conditions." After a military briefing was obtained by the AP in January showing that at least nine current or former missileers at Malmstrom were diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a rare blood cancer, the Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine launched a study to look at cancers among the entire missile community, checking for the possibility of clusters of the disease. And there could be hundreds more cancers of all types, based on new data from a grassroots group of former missile launch officers and their surviving family members.

According to the Torchlight Initiative, at least 268 troops who served at nuclear missile sites, or their surviving family members, have self-reported being diagnosed with cancer, blood diseases, or other illnesses over the past several decades. At least 217 of those reported cases are cancers, at least 33 of them non-Hodgkin lymphoma. What's notable about those reported numbers is that the missileer community is very small. Only a few hundred airmen serve as missileers at each of the country's three silo-launched Minuteman III ICBM bases any given year. There've been only about 21,000 missileers in total since the Minuteman operations began in the early 1960s, per the Torchlight Initiative. For some context, in the US general population, there are about 403 new cancer cases reported per 100,000 people each year, per the CDC.

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Minutemen III silo fields are based at Malmstrom, FE Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, and Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota. Missileers are military officers who serve in underground launch control centers, with two missileers spending sometimes days at a time on watch in underground bunkers, ready to turn the key and fire Minuteman III ICBMs if ordered to do so by the president. The Minuteman III silos and underground control centers were built more than 60 years ago, and much of the electronics and infrastructure is decades old. Missileers have repeatedly raised concerns about ventilation, water quality, and potential toxins they can't avoid as they're underground. The Air Force discovery of PCBs occurred as part of site visits by its bioenvironmental team from June 22 to June 29 in the Air Force's ongoing larger probe into the number of cancers reported among the missile community.

(More Air Force stories.)

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