Commentary

Originally published in the Stars & Stripes.

By SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN

Over the past year, media reports have identified a troubling trend of high cancer rates among military aviators. In one survey of current and former military pilots, 56% of those who responded said they had cancer and 13% of them disclosed multiple cancers. These clusters of cancer diagnoses have been reported at several military installations including Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake in California and Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina.

Unfortunately, we don’t know the full scope of the problem because there hasn’t been a comprehensive study on current and former military aviators. That means we don’t know what may be causing the cancer spikes or how many military bases have these cancer clusters. We don’t even know the rate of cancer among military aviators compared to that of the general population.

That’s why I introduced a bill in June with Sen. John Cornyn and a bipartisan group of senators that directs the Defense Department to conduct a study and identify potential sources of cancer. This provision was included in the Senate version of this year’s defense authorization bill, currently being reconciled with the House of Representatives.

Our bill will help us understand the full extent of this problem, but what we already know is startling.

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Four commanding officers who served at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake have died of cancer. Each of those officers had completed thousands of flight hours.

A 2008 study by the Air Force titled “Cancer in Fighters” found six pilots and weapons systems officers for the F–15E Strike Eagle at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base — all between the ages of 33 and 43 — were diagnosed with forms of urogenital cancers between 2002 and 2005. Each officer had completed at least 2,100 flight hours.

Another Air Force study in 2010 reported a cluster of seven members of the Air Force Special Operations Command diagnosed with brain cancer among C-130 crew members between 2006 and 2009. Compare this spike to overall brain cancer rates, which affects only 6.5 out of 100,000 people nationwide.

While we’ve seen a handful of standalone studies of active duty pilots and crew, there has been no comprehensive, multi-service study by the Pentagon to determine why so many aviators and support personnel are getting sick.

Our bill would require the Defense Department to conduct a study of all branches of the military with aviators to determine if there is a higher incidence of cancers occurring for military aviators as compared to that of similar age groups in the general population.

If the study determines a higher rate of cancer among military aviators exists, the department would then have to identify carcinogens associated with military flight operations, environments where aviators might have been exposed to increased radiation and military locations with higher incidences of cancer.

Our armed forces take risks and make sacrifices every day. They shouldn’t have the added concern that their jobs will give them cancer. We’re hopeful that this bill, which has broad support from active duty and retired military aviator groups, will be in the final defense bill and will be signed into law later this year. It’s the least we can do to honor their service.

Dianne Feinstein is a Democratic senator from California.