Carcinogen Test Results at 2 More Nuclear Missile Bases Expected in 2 Months

inert Minuteman III missile is seen in a training launch tube at Minot Air Force Base, N.D.
An inert Minuteman III missile is seen in a training launch tube at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., June 25, 2014. Nine military officers who had worked decades ago at a nuclear missile base in Montana, home to a vast field of 150 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile silos, have been diagnosed with blood cancer and there are “indications” the disease may be linked to their service, according to military briefing slides obtained by The Associated Press. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

Lawmakers voiced alarm and concern this week as the Air Force continued testing the safety of working spaces at intercontinental ballistic missile bases after finding potentially dangerous levels of carcinogens at the facilities at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana.

Air Force Global Strike Command announced that polychlorinated biphenyls, banned chemical compounds commonly known as PCBs that were used in building and electrical materials, were detected at Malmstrom during an ongoing study into possible toxic exposure and cancer concerns among America's current and former missileers.

A spokeswoman for the command told on Thursday that additional air and surface sampling has been completed at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming, and Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota. Results will be available in roughly two months, she said.

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"The samplings were recently completed at the three bases, and we anticipate a minimum of 60 days from when each sample was taken, before any holistic results are available," Capt. Lauren Linscott said. "We will continue to keep our Airmen out of areas that have not been mitigated for elevated PCBs."

Early this year, a Space Force officer detailed exposure risks and various cancer diagnoses among veterans who served at Malmstrom in a briefing, warning of a possible link between their service and cancer.

The Air Force began a study focusing on Malmstrom and expanded it in February to include a wide assortment of jobs at the nation's intercontinental ballistic missile bases.

In May, Air Force Global Strike Command announced "no immediate factors were discovered that would be considered immediate concerns for acute cancer risks" and added "no specific factors had been found at Malmstrom AFB to indicate an elevated risk level, environmental or otherwise, present at that installation."

But this week's announcement that carcinogens had been detected at two launch control centers and missile alert facility sites at Malmstrom shows that risks could still be uncovered by the ongoing study.

Two Montana lawmakers, Rep. Matt Rosendale and Sen. Jon Tester, wrote letters to the Department of Defense voicing alarm over the recent findings.

"I'm deeply concerned by reports that hazardous materials linked to many types of cancer have been found at Malmstrom Air Force Base," Rosendale said in a statement. "Our service members should not be afraid to report for duty for fear that they will be exposed to toxic chemicals, carcinogens, or other dangerous substances."

Tester, the chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, called on the Pentagon to take care of those affected and their families.

"I am deeply alarmed by the Air Force's most recent study, released this week, which revealed that unsafe levels of a likely carcinogen have been detected at Malmstrom," Tester wrote in a letter. "Our missileers play a critical role in protecting Montana and our nation, and I am calling on the Defense Department to ensure all potentially impacted service members and their families receive swift answers and appropriate care."

Production of polychlorinated biphenyls was outlawed in the U.S. by the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976.

Overexposure to the oily substances in animal studies has been tied to a range of serious health conditions, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

"Three hundred surface swipe samples were taken from across all Malmstrom AFB," Air Force Global Strike Command said in a press release. "Of the swipes, 279 returned non-detectable results. Of the 21 with detectable results, 19 were below the mitigation level established by federal law and regulation."

The Space Force officer who first raised the alarm in a presentation at Schriever Space Force Base, Colorado, detailed 36 cases in which 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 his briefing, developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Two developed Hodgkin 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.

This is not the first time the military has investigated a link between missileer service and cancer clusters.

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

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

But the Air Force Medical Service, which is conducting the new "Missile Community Cancer Study," now says those conclusions may be outdated. Under a frequently asked question section on the service's website, the office says that the findings from two decades ago may have changed.

"We acknowledge time has passed and have the responsibility to investigate any potential service-related risks to airmen, Guardians or their dependents' health," the website says. "We take this responsibility seriously."

The issue is of great concern to the newly created Space Force, as more than 400 of the service's current officers are former missileers.

Additionally, the Torchlight Initiative, a non-government organization composed of current and former ICBM community members and their families, has a self-reported registry in which 268 current and former service members or their surviving family members tied to ICBM bases have reported cancer, diseases or illnesses.

So far, 217 of those cases are cancer and 33 are non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Roughly 46% of those self-reported cases are from those who served at Malmstrom Air Force Base.

Cleanup and mitigation of the PCBs at Malmstrom are underway and were ordered by Air Force Global Strike Commander Gen. Thomas Bussiere.

"Based on the initial results from the survey team, which discovered PCB levels above the cleanup threshold designated by law in two of our facilities, I directed Twentieth Air Force to take immediate measures to begin the cleanup process for the affected facilities and mitigate exposure by our airmen and Guardians to potentially hazardous conditions," Bussiere said in a statement.

"These measures will stay in place until I am satisfied that we are providing our missile community with a safe and clean work environment," he said.

When asked about the specific details of the cleanup and mitigation efforts, including whether missileers would be displaced from their routine workspaces, Linscott did not provide specifics, saying policies and procedures are being implemented by the workforces at those bases.

If resources for thorough cleanup and mitigation can't be provided by the bases, those services may be contracted out.

"We are currently partnered with bioenvironmental and medical teams from across the Air Force to determine their capacity for cleanup," Linscott said. "If they are unable, we expect to look for contract assistance."

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

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