A recent Air Force report of carcinogenic levels in underground control centers at Montana nuclear missile bases and analysis of hundreds of reported cancer cases by U.S. military servicemembers have brought a spotlight to an often ignored issue at such bases. Air Force command revealed that the samples taken at Montana bases were just the first in an effort to address cancer concerns at active U.S. ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) bases.
The samples, for instance, from two launch facilities at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana showed PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl) levels that exceeded the maximum levels recommended by the EPA. This came after, in January 2023, a military briefing showed that nine current or former missileers at the base had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a rare blood cancer.
PCBs are highly carcinogenic organic chlorine compounds that were banned from further production all the way back in 1976 under the U.S. Toxic Substances Control Act. However, due to their longevity and large use prior to enforcement of the ban, they can be found in varying levels in virtually all built or developed environments as well as surrounding waterways. In addition to cancer, PCBs can also disrupt the body’s functions in a number of ways, including endocrine issues and neurotoxicity, as well as other fatal or injurious effects after exposure to or ingesting contaminated products.
What’s the effect?
The Torchlight Initiative, an NGO focused on ICBM issues, reports that at least 268 servicemembers who were stationed at Montana nuclear missile sites, or their family members, have been diagnosed with various cancers, blood diseases, or other illnesses over the past several decades. They report that 217 of these 268 are cancer cases, and of those, 33 are non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a type of lymphoma that in the past has been associated with PCB exposure, although not conclusively or exclusively. These numbers are considerable when you take into account that there have only been about 21,000 missileers in total since Minutemen ICBM operations began in the 1960s. Only 3,300 servicemembers are stationed at Malmstrom at one time, with only 400 working as missileers or in supportive roles. As well, there are 403 new cancer cases out of 100,000 people each year in the U.S. and only 19 out of 100,000 non-Hodgkin lymphoma cases, a disproportionate ratio when compared with the cases at these ICBM bases.
Missileers that have come down with cancer and illnesses in these bases are reportedly both male and female officers. These officers serve most of the time in pairs, rotating in underground control centers where they stand ready with nuclear keys to fire off ICBM silos if ordered so by the president of the United States.
Torchlight describes themselves as: “a non-government organization composed of current and former ICBM community members and their families… Our mission is to address health issues of vital interest to the ICBM community, specifically, to address the higher rates of cancer and associated disorders amongst those that operated, maintained, supported, or protected ICBM delivery systems. Our goal is to ensure the current and future ICBM environment is safe for all current and future personnel while continuing to support the vital deterrent capability inherent in the ICBM mission. We will advocate for this community and ensure former and current community members receive education, health monitoring, health care, and when appropriate, VA claim service connection.”
This discovery reportedly came after a series of visits by the Air Force’s bioenvironmental team in late June. Water, soil, air, and surface samples were reportedly collected from a number of missile launch facilities. At Malmstrom, 21 swabs detected PCBs out of 300 surface samples, with 19 being below EPA levels requiring mitigation efforts. Test results are still pending from other locations.
As time goes on, hopefully more briefings will be released to give insight and reveal the full extent of dangerous exposure at U.S. ICBM bases and, ideally, other military infrastructure and bases.
Nuclear silos and Air Force bases are not the only locations where U.S. servicemembers are subjected to exposure to potentially lethal or crippling chemicals. AFFF and, more specifically, PFOS and PFAS can all lead to cancer cases, for instance. A Congressional study in 2021, for example, found that between 1992 and 2017, United States military air crews suffered an 87% higher rate of melanoma cancer, men were more likely by 16% to get prostate cancer, and women were more likely by 16% to get breast cancer. Ground crews had a 19% higher rate of brain and nervous system cancer, a 15% higher rate of thyroid cancer, and a 9% higher likelihood of kidney or renal cancer.
It is unclear what further action, if any, will be taken by the U.S. military to investigate specific sources of the PCBs or other possible chemical exposure or prevent such exposure in Montana. Previous studies on the topic have prompted some As well it is unclear in which ways they will assist specific servicemembers or their family members who are suffering illnesses as a result of exposure on Montana bases.
Rhonda Wesolowski’s son Air Force Capt. Jason Jenness was a senior missile launch officer in the 1990s with the now-deactivated 564th missile squadron at Malmstrom. He died from non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2001 at the age of 31. Even back then, his mother says, she was concerned his cancer had to do with his service, “and his friends were concerned, because there were rumors.” But when she reached out to the Air Force, “I got a form letter,” she said. To her, the letter left her feeling that the cancers were “being swept under the rug.”
Her son, Jason Jenness, died five months after his diagnosis.
“I knew it was too big. Too big a fight,” she said of trying to push the Air Force to figure out why her son and other missileers were getting sick. “I still think its too big a fight. I’m very happy that there’s some spotlight being put on it, because then it will make people more aware, and kids who are going into the service may ask more questions, and it may help in that regard.”
Jeff Fawcett Jr.’s father also served with 564th missile squadron at Malmstrom, from 1988 to 1992. He died in 2016 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center of acute lymphoblastic leukemia and and chronic myelomonocytic leukemia, both types of blood cancers. He was 56. Jeff Fawcett Sr. served for 25 years — and if he was alive now, “would never be able to bring himself to the conclusion” that his missileer service might have been connected to his cancer, his son said.
“He loved the military,” Fawcett Jr. said. But the son is hoping the Air Force will do more to look for possible causes. Because the elder Fawcett served a 20-year military career, he received lifetime military medical care. Walter Reed doctors said his six-month battle could have cost more than $1 million if the family had to go through a private hospital and insurance, Fawcett Jr. said. “His care didn’t bankrupt my family,” the son said. “But what if you’re a young lieutenant who did four years and got out, and 15 years later you have an awful blood cancer and you are paying God knows how much?”