WASHINGTON (AP) — The Air Force has detected unsafe levels of a suspected carcinogen in underground launch control centers at a nuclear missile base in Montana, where a striking number of men and women have reported cancer diagnoses.
A new clean-up operation was ordered.
The discovery “is the first of an extensive sample of active U.S. ICBM bases to address specific cancer concerns raised by members of the missile community,” the Air Force Global Strike Command said in a news release Monday.
In these samples, two launch sites at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana, had PCB levels above the Environmental Protection Agency recommended limits.
PCBs are oily or waxy substances that the EPA has classified as a probable carcinogen. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is a blood cancer that spreads through the body’s infection-fighting lymphatic system.
In response, Gen. Thomas Bussiere, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, has ordered “immediate action to begin the process of cleaning up affected facilities and reducing our airmen and guards’ exposure to potentially hazardous conditions.”
After The Associated Press received a military briefing in January that showed at least nine current or former missile launchers in Malmstrom had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a rare blood cancer, the Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine launched a study into the Studying cancers across the rocket community to look for the possibility of clusters of the disease.
And there could be hundreds more cancers of all kinds, according to new data from a grassroots group of former missile launch officers and their families.
According to the torch initiative, At least 268 service members who have served at nuclear missile sites, or their surviving family members, have self-reported being diagnosed with cancer, blood disorders or other illnesses over the past several decades.
At least 217 of those reported cases are cancers, with at least 33 of them non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
The remarkable thing about these reported numbers is that the rocket launcher community is very small. Just a few hundred aviators each year serve as the missile launchers on each of the three silo-launched Minuteman III ICBM bases in the country. According to the Torchlight Initiative, there have only been about 21,000 total rocket launchers since Minuteman operations began in the early 1960s.
About 403 new cases of cancer per 100,000 people are reported each year in the U.S. general population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma affects 19 in every 100,000 people annually, according to the American Cancer Society.
Minutemen III’s silo fields are located at Malmstrom, FE Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, and Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota.
Missile launchers are male and female military officers who serve in underground launch control centers, where they are responsible for overseeing and launching silo-based nuclear weapons arrays when necessary. Two missile launchers will spend days on guard duty in underground bunkers, ready to turn the key and launch Minuteman III ICBMs if the President so commands.
The Minuteman III silos and underground control centers were built more than 60 years ago. Much of the electronics and infrastructure is decades old. Rocket launchers have raised multiple health concerns over the years about ventilation, water quality, and potential toxins they cannot avoid operating 24 to 48 hours underground.
The Air Force’s discovery of PCBs was made during June 22-29 site visits to the Air Force by its Bioenvironmental Team ongoing major investigation into the number of cancers reported in the rocket community. During on-site visits, a health assessment team collected water, soil, air and surface samples from each missile launch site.
At Malmstrom, 21 PCBs were detected out of the 300 surface wipe samples. Of these, 19 were below EPA-established limits requiring mitigation and two were above. PCBs were not detected in any of the 30 air samples. The Air Force is still awaiting test results from FE Warren and Minot for surface and air samples, and for all bases for water and soil samples.