Military investigates whether cancers linked to nuclear silos work

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WASHINGTON (TBEN) — Nine military officers who worked at a nuclear missile base in Montana decades ago have been diagnosed with blood cancers and there are “indications” that the disease may be related to their service, according to military briefing slides obtained by The The Bharat Express News. One of the agents has died.

All officers, better known as missiles, were assigned a whopping 25 years ago to Malmstrom Air Force Base, home to a sprawling field of 150 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile silos. The nine officers were diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, according to a briefing in January by US Space Force Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Sebeck.

Rocket missiles ride caged elevators deep underground to a small operations bunker encased in a thick wall of concrete and steel. They sometimes stay there for days, ready to turn the launch keys when the president orders them to do so.

“There is some evidence of a possible link between cancer and missile crew service at Malmstrom AFB,” Sebeck said in slides presented to his Space Force unit this month. The “disproportionate number of rocket launchers with cancer, especially lymphoma,” was concerning, he said.

Sebeck declined to comment when the TBEN contacted him by email on Saturday, saying the slides were “preliminary.” In the slides, he said the issue was important to the Space Force because as many as 455 former rocket launchers now serve as Space Force officers, including at least four of the nine identified on the slides.

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In a statement to the TBEN, Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said that “senior leaders are aware of the concerns that have been raised about the possible association of cancer with respect to missile combat crew members at Malmstrom AFB.”

Stefanek added, “The information in this briefing has been shared with the Department of the Air Force Surgeon General and our medical professionals are working to collect data and understand more.”

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, which affects an estimated 19 out of every 100,000 people in the U.S. every year, according to the American Cancer Society, is a blood cancer that uses the body’s infection-fighting lymphatic system to spread.

By comparison, there are only about 3,300 troops stationed at Malmstrom at a time, and only about 400 of those are assigned as missile launchers or support to those operators. It is one of three bases in the US operating a total of 400 Minutemen III ICBMs in silos, including fields at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota and FE Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming.

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The median age for adult non-Hodgkin lymphoma is 67, according to the National Institutes of Health. The affected former rocket launchers are much younger. Officers are often in their twenties when they are on duty; the officer who died, who was not identified, was a Space Force officer assigned to Schreiver Space Force Base in Colorado with the rank of major, a rank generally attained when a service member is in his thirties. Two of the others are in the same Space Force unit with the rank of lieutenant colonel, typically attained when a service member is in their early 40s.

It is not the first time the military has been alerted to multiple cases of cancer in Malmstrom. In 2001, the Air Force Institute for Operational Health investigated the base after 14 cancers of various types were reported among missile launchers who had served there, including two cases of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

But the review found that the base was environmentally safe and that “sometimes diseases just happen by chance.” The report complained that the list of diagnosed individuals was collected because it “perpetuates the level of concern”.

The discovery of new cases comes as the U.S. government has shown more openness in acknowledging the environmental hazards or exposure to toxic substances that troops may face while on duty.

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In her statement to the TBEN, Air Force spokeswoman Stefanek said, “We are heartbroken for anyone who has lost loved ones or is currently dealing with any type of cancer.”

It was not clear whether some of the nine officers identified in the January briefing slides, whose diagnosis occurred between 1997 and 2007, overlapped with some of the cases identified in the Air Force’s 2001 investigation. It is also not known if there were similar reports of cancer at other nuclear silo bases or if this is being investigated by the Air Force.

“Missile missiles have always been concerned about known hazards, such as exposure to chemicals, asbestos, polychlorinated biphenyls, lead and other hazardous materials in the work environment,” Sebeck said in the January slides. “All missiles must be screened and tracked for the rest of their lives.”

Last year, President Joe Biden signed into law the PACT bill, which significantly expanded the types of illnesses and toxic exposures considered probable — meaning a service member or veterans wouldn’t have to fight an uphill battle to convince the government that the injury was related to their military service to receive covered care.

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