March 20, 2023 – Military pilots and ground crews have a higher rate of many different types of cancer compared to the general population, according to new data from the Department of Defense.
While pilots and crew are more likely to be diagnosed with cancer, they are less likely to die from it compared to the rest of the country’s population, according to the report.
The study looked at 156,050 aircrew and 737,891 ground crew who were tracked between 1992 and 2017. Both groups were mostly male and non-Hispanic.
Data on cancer rates and deaths in these two groups were compared to similar age groups in the general population through the use of the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) database of the National Cancer Institute.
For aircrew, the study found an 87% higher rate of melanoma, a 39% higher rate of thyroid cancer, a 16% higher rate of prostate cancer, and a 24% higher rate of cancer. high for all sites combined.
The finding of a higher rate of melanoma and prostate cancer among aircrew has been previously reported, but the increased rate of thyroid cancer is a new finding, the authors noted.
The rise of melanoma has also been reported in studies of civilian pilots and cabin crew and has been attributed to exposure to harmful ultraviolet and cosmic radiation.
For ground crew members, the analysis revealed a 19% higher rate of brain and nervous system cancers, a 15% higher rate of thyroid cancer, a 9% higher rate of melanoma and kidney and pelvis cancers, and a 3% higher cancer rate for all sites combined.
There is little comparison with these results. This is the first time that cancer risk has been assessed in such a large population of military ground crews.
Falling cancer death rates
In contrast to the increase in cancer rates, the report found a decrease in cancer deaths.
Compared to a similar US population, aircrew had a 56% lower mortality rate for all types of cancer, and ground personnel had a 35% lower mortality rate.
However, the report’s authors point out that the military population studied was relatively young.
For the analysis of cancer rates, the average age of aircrew was 41 and ground staff only 26. For the analysis of fatality rates, the average age of aircrew was 48 years old and that of ground staff was 41 years old.
“Results might have differed if other older military veterans had been included in the study because cancer risk and mortality rates increase with age,” the authors commented.
Other studies have found an increase in deaths, as well as an increase in the incidence of melanoma. A meta-analysis published in 2019 in the British Journal of Dermatology found that airline pilots and cabin crew were about twice as likely to develop melanoma and other skin cancers as the general population, with pilots also more likely to die from melanoma.
The findings on military air and ground personnel come from Phase 1 of a study mandated by Congress in the 2021 Defense Bill. Because it found an increase in the incidence of cancer, the Phase 2 of the study should now take place.
The authors of the report explained that Phase 2 would be to identify carcinogenic toxic or hazardous materials associated with military air operations:
- Operating environments that may be associated with increased amounts of ionizing and non-ionizing radiation
- Specific duties, dates of service, and types of aircraft used that may have increased cancer risk
- Identify workplaces associated with higher cancer rates
- Identify potential exposures due to military service that are not related to aviation
- Determining the Appropriate Age to Begin Cancer Screening in Military and Ground Crew