New Study Finds Alarming Cancer Rates Among Air Force Veterans. What’s Being Done About It?
An alarming new Department of Defense study revealed that Air Force service members and veterans have higher cancer rates than their peers in other branches of the military.
Of the over 900,000 service members who were surveyed between 1992 to 2017, aircrew service members had much higher cancer rates over the same 24 year period. The study found elevated cancer rates for air crews and ground crews alike.
Pilots faced an 87% higher rate of melanoma, a type of skin cancer; a 39% higher rate of thyroid cancer; and a 24% higher rate of all types of cancer.
Ground crews faced a 19% higher rate of brain and nervous system cancers, a 15% higher rate of thyroid cancer, a 9% higher rate of kidney, renal, and melanoma cancers, and a 3% higher rate for all types of cancer.
Congress mandated the DOD study as part of the 2021 defense bill. The Pentagon must now conduct an even bigger review to understand why. Veterans advocates are calling on Congress to require the VA conduct its own studies using its own data on Air Force service members, with an eye toward opening up presumptive disability benefits for impacted veterans.
When completed, these studies will have a profound impact on the long-term health care and disability compensation of Air Force veterans battling cancer.
This article looks at the possible causes of higher cancer rates, including radiation exposure, and what Air Force veterans can do now to get screened and file a disability claim while awaiting further study results.
What’s Causing the Higher Cancer Rates Among Air Force Personnel?
Both studies focused on cancer rates, not causes. However, we can look to existing studies to understand the possible causes. Recent epidemiological studies on aircrews have observed higher rates of specific cancers compared to the general population.
According to a Frontiers in Public Health review of existing research, aircrews are exposed to cosmic ionizing radiation (CIR) at flight altitude, and these exposures accumulate over time. High levels of CIR exposure are one possible cause of high cancer rates. But the government requires more studies showing cause and effect before they will grant the presumption of service-connection for Air Force veterans with cancer.
Other possible causes of elevated cancer rates in aircrews are so-called cockpit radiation, exposure to radio frequency and electromagnetic fields, non-ionizing radiation from radars and jamming equipment, and exposure to jet fuel and fumes.
It’s worth noting that jet fuel was used as an accelerant to burn waste in Afghanistan and Iraq. When burned, this type of fuel has been definitively linked to many types of cancer and lung diseases, but it doesn’t have to be combusted to cause ill health effects if the exposure is long-term.
Can I Get Disability Benefits for Radiation Exposure?
Yes. The VA already allows that cancers caused by radiation exposure are presumed to be service-connected, but not for all of the Air Force service members who were part of the DOD study. So who is currently covered?
Presumptive Benefits Linked to Radiation Risk Activities
Veterans who participated in certain radiation-risk activities and got cancer are automatically eligible for disability compensation. (Survivors may also be eligible for survivors’ benefits if the veteran lost their battle with cancer.) The list of radiation-risk activities dates back to the occupation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II and includes depleted uranium exposure during the Gulf Wars. See our comprehensive page on radiation exposure to learn more.
More recently, the PACT ACT expanded eligibility for veterans exposed to radiation. The 2022 bill added participation in the following three additional radiation-risk activities as a qualification for disability benefits for veterans with certain cancers.
- Enewetak Atoll cleanup between January 1, 1977 and December 31, 1980.
- Palomares, Spain, response effort between January 17, 1966 and March 31, 1967.
- Thule, Greenland, response effort between Januaryt 21, 1968 and September 25, 1968
Impact of the PACT Act on Toxic Exposure Compensation
The PACT Act didn’t just add a few more radiation-risk activities to the presumptive list. It changed the way the VA handles toxic exposure claims, making more presumptive benefits available to impacted veterans.
Veterans exposed to burn pits in Afghanistan and the Gulf Wars now enjoy a presumption of service-connection for a wide range of respiratory and related diseases. The law also grants presumptive benefits to Vietnam-era veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange in countries other than Vietnam. These are big wins for veterans suffering from toxic exposures.
What Happens Next?
As with Agent Orange and burn pits, the VA will have to conduct its own “nexus” studies to determine root causes and establish a likelihood of causality. The studies only have to show that the toxic exposure is more likely than not the cause of these Air Force veterans’ cancers. Once these studies are in, it is only a matter of time — and political pressure — before presumptive benefits are made law for veterans exposed to radiation and other known carcinogens.
You don’t have to wait for the result of a study to seek fair compensation for the sacrifices you made in service to our country. Air Force veterans deserve prompt and compassionate care, regardless of bureaucratic delays.
What Air Force Veterans Should Do Now
The first thing to do is to see your doctor and get screened for the types of cancer listed above, if you haven’t already, or if it has been a while since your last cancer screening.
If you are an Air Force veteran with cancer or other health conditions associated with radiation exposure, including cardiovascular disease, be sure to file a disability claim. Disability compensation is one of the benefits you earned when you signed up to serve. Not sure how to file a claim? See our Getting Started guide.
If the VA denied your cancer claim in the past, you have options. An unfavorable VA decision is not the end of the road. For some veterans seeking compensation, it’s just the beginning, but you will need an experienced and accredited claims guide in your corner to navigate the VA’s labyrinth.
Here at the Rep for Vets we’ve helped thousands of veterans in your shoes get the disability compensation they earned when they signed up to serve. Give us a call today at (888) 573-7838 or fill out a quick contact form to get the ball rolling. We look forward to hearing your story and helping out in any way we can.