Missileers Worry About New Signs of Link Between Service and Cancer, Latest in Toxic Exposure Concerns

A U.S. Air Force missile handling technician.
A U.S. Air Force missile handling technician connects two cords during preparation of a missile roll transfer April 20, 2021 at the missile handling facility on Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Elijah Van Zandt)

The community of missileers who have spent years standing watch in concrete bunkers for days at a time while operating America's nuclear arsenal are voicing concern about a presentation detailing a possible link between their service and cancer.

The warning, delivered by a Space Force officer who gathered details on cancer diagnoses received by veterans who served at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, is the latest hint in what advocates describe as a growing body of evidence of potential toxic exposure inside nuclear missile silos.

Retired Col. Jim Warner, a former missileer and the executive director of the Association of Air Force Missileers, told Military.com that the organization's members are, understandably, worried about the news.

Read Next: Soldiers Need to Check If Their Families Have Health Care After IT Snafu Kicked 25,000 Beneficiaries Off Tricare

"The Association of Air Force Missileers is closely following this and will assist the Air Force with their investigation," Warner said.

The details of a potential cancer link at Malmstrom came in a slide deck presented to troops earlier this month. The Space Force officer detailed 36 cases where missileers who had been stationed at Malmstrom during their careers were diagnosed with a type of cancer.

Ten of the airmen who have received cancer diagnoses, according to the presentation, developed non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Two developed Hodgkin's lymphoma, and 24 developed another form of cancer. Overall, eight of the 36 missileers with cancer diagnoses, the majority of whom served at Malmstrom sometime between 1997 and 2007, have died.

The presentation was created by Lt. Col. Daniel Sebeck, a vice commander of Space Delta 8 in Colorado. Copies of the slides were obtained by Military.com and verified by the Department of the Air Force. Malmstrom is one of the bases that protects and fires Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles.

"There are indications of a possible association between cancer and missile combat crew member service at Malmstrom Air Force Base, specifically Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma," Sebeck wrote. "The current number of cancer health events associated with service at Malmstrom AFB justifies further investigation and action."

He said the issue is a concern for the Space Force because more than 400 of the service's current officers are former missileers. Sebeck declined to comment when reached by Military.com and referred questions to the Department of Air Force.

At these duty stations, missileers are exposed to a variety of chemicals and toxins ranging from paint in small spaces to fumes from burning classified documents to aerial asbestos and radon exposure, the presentation detailed.

Department of the Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said that senior leaders are aware of the concerns raised in the slide and are looking into the matter.

"We are heartbroken for all who have lost loved ones or are currently facing cancer of any kind and know that we have the responsibility to investigate any potential service-related risks to Airmen, Guardians or their dependents' health," Stefanek told Military.com. "The information in the briefing has been shared with the Department of the Air Force Surgeon General and our medical professionals are working to gather data and understand more."

In an interview with Military.com, Randy Shircel, a former Air Force facilities technician who served twice in missile silos for the Minuteman's predecessor, Titan II, said former service members whose workspaces were in the silos were exposed to highly toxic propellants and have developed non-cancerous tumors, lung and thyroid cancer, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and Parkinson's disease. Spills or leaks of propellant occurred frequently, contaminating silos for up to six weeks -- a period in which the missiles were manned 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

"There was a radiation detector in the control room ... and vapor detectors that were supposed to sample the air on each of the levels; they just didn't work as advertised by the Air Force," Shircel said.

The Titan II missile was housed in 54 sites at four military bases across the country, including the former Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, Little Rock Air Force Base in Arkansas and McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas, from 1962 through the mid-1980s.

From 1975 to 1979, there were 125 leaks of propellant or oxidizer -- a substance used in the launch process -- on Titan II missiles that caused major health problems among crew members, according to the Air Force.

In 1978, a leak of an oxidizer used during launch killed two airmen and forced the evacuation of 1,345 residents of Rock, Kansas, near McConnell AFB, according to an Air Force investigation into the accident.

"The only thing the Air Force was worried about was that our missiles stayed on alert and were ready to fire," Shircel said.

While few studies have been conducted on the effects of exposure to hydrazine, a component of rocket propellant, on human health, it has been determined to cause cancers in animals. The Air Force considers hydrazine as "suspected human carcinogens."

In 2001, the Air Force Institute for Operational Health did a site evaluation and sampled for potential chemical and biological contaminants at Malmstrom after reports of various cancers from missileers were reported -- including cervical cancer, thyroid cancer, Hodgkin's lymphoma and two cases of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in which those patients died, according to a review of the report issued in 2005.

The Air Force said in a 2005 review of the report that "there is not sufficient evidence to consider the possibility of a cancer clustering to justify further investigation" and said they observed that "sometimes illnesses tend to occur by chance alone."

-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at Thomas.Novelly@Military.com. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime

Related: Military Probing Whether Cancers Linked to Nuclear Silo Work

Story Continues