New Study Finds Higher Cancer Rates Among Military Pilots and Ground Crews

A large Pentagon study pushed by retired military pilots has found a heightened rate of cancer among military flight personnel, in the air and on the ground.

The Pentagon recently released the findings of research involving nearly 900,000 air and ground crew members, which showed that aircrews have a 24% higher rate of all types of cancer than the general population. For certain forms of the disease, the rate was even higher: 87% for melanoma and 39% for thyroid cancer. There was also a 16% higher rate of prostate and breast cancers among male crew and female crew, respectively.


While the figures weren’t quite so high for ground crews, they had a 3% higher rate of all types of cancer, with a 19% higher incidence of cancers of the brain and nervous system, 15% higher incidence of thyroid cancer, and a 9% higher incidence of both melanoma and kidney and renal pelvis cancers. Female crew members also faced a 7% higher rate of breast cancer.

Despite the uptick, though, both were found to have lower or similar cancer mortality rates to the general population. Both types of personnel were found to have lower rates of lung cancer, while air crews had lower rates of both bladder and colon cancers, as well.

The Pentagon does note that there was not complete Department of Defense data on cancer cases prior to 1990, so this phase of the study could have underreported cases. They’re aiming to address this in a supplemental phase 1-b study by using data from the VA Central Cancer Registry and the Virtual Pooled Registry Cancer Linkage System. They will then launch into a larger phase 2 study to understand why cancer rates are higher.


Congress had required the Department of Defense to look into the issue as part of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act. This came after retired pilots sounded the alarm when they noticed how many of their former colleagues had developed cancer.

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