The Air Force Is Investigating Cases of Rare Pediatric Brain Cancers. This Isn’t the First Time.

Valves that control a ground water remediation system at Wright-Patterson
A cup full of single-use, ion-exchange, gel-based media sits atop valves that control a ground water remediation system being used to remediate polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) from groundwater at the fire training area of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio on Sept. 29, 2020. (U.S. Air Force photo by Ty Greenlees)

The Air Force has been investigating cases of rare pediatric brain cancers diagnosed in three military children at Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico to determine whether the disease is more widespread in the region than previously reported or is occurring at higher rates than average.

Epidemiologists from the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine began assessing cases of diffuse midline glioma, or DMG, and diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, or DIPG, at Cannon and in the surrounding area in January after concerns arose among families who have lived on the installation, according to a press release last week from the 27th Special Operations Wing.

According to wing leaders, the scientists not only will examine the rates of these cancers at Cannon, they also will look at all types of pediatric brain cancer diagnosed among children on the base, in the region and across other Air Force installations, as well as the civilian population.

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The concern over pediatric brain cancers at Cannon mirrors the distress at Patrick Space Force Base, then Patrick Air Force Base, roughly five years ago, when dozens of cases of cancer and at least eight diagnoses of rare brain cancers occurred on the Florida installation or around the nearby city of Satellite Beach, according to congressional testimony in 2020 by retired Army helicopter pilot and Air Force veteran James Holmes.

Holmes lost his daughter, Kaela, in 2019 at age 17 to DIPG.

Testifying before the House Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Appropriations subcommittee on March 11, 2020, Holmes blamed Kaela's illness on widespread contamination of the installation with firefighting foam that contain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, often called PFAS.

Known as "forever chemicals," PFAS is a group of man-made chemicals that do not break down in the environment and can accumulate in the human body. They have been linked to health conditions including testicular and kidney cancer, decreased response to immunization, low birth weights and developmental delays.

A 2019 investigation by the Florida Department of Health in Brevard County, where Patrick Space Force Base is located, found higher than average rates for bladder cancer, leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma in the region, and lower rates for other types, such as thyroid and liver cancer.

But the investigation did not examine brain cancer. And it noted that the Florida Department of Health's Bureau of Environmental Health reviewed the current sampling of PFAS in the region and "found no evidence of PFAS currently impacting the public drinking water supply."

Holmes testified that, while his family lived at the base, water samples contained 57,000 times the Environmental Protection Agency's lifetime drinking water exposure level at the time of 70 parts per trillion.

The EPA has since recommended 4 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS, two of the more ubiquitous types of PFAS chemicals linked to health risks.

"The failure to disclose such critical information showed a complete lack of care for the health and safety of the service members, dependents and civilians that live on and around Patrick Air Force Base," Holmes said.

"I lost my only child due to being poisoned by the same military that I faithfully served and fought for. When I learned about the connection of PFAS and Kaela's cancer, I got rid of all my awards, certificates and uniforms," he added. "I'll have to live the rest of my life knowing that my decision to serve in the military and reside on a United States Air Force base resulted in the death of my daughter."

According to the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization that monitors PFAS contamination and pushes industry and the federal government to clean up sites, Patrick Space Force Base ranks third in its "Filthy 50" most contaminated Department of Defense sites, with a maximum amount detected in groundwater at 4.34 million parts per trillion.

Cannon Air Force Base has PFAS levels exceeding 26,000 parts per trillion, or more than 6,500 times the proposed guidelines of 4 parts per trillion, according to data published by the University of New Mexico.

The Department of Defense has completed or is assessing 714 active and former military installations, National Guard facilities and other former defense sites to determine the extent of PFAS contamination in groundwater, soil and the water supplies at these locations and nearby communities.

As of June, 359 military bases and communities were determined to need remediation, while another 248 were still under investigation. The remaining 107 were found to not have any contamination.

The New Mexico Environment Department issued regulations to Cannon in 2018 to curb contamination of PFAS into area groundwater and soil. The base in turn sued the state, and although the case was dismissed last year, it has been appealed to the New Mexico Court of Appeals.

According to the 27th Special Operations Wing, the team investigating Cannon will include pediatric brain cancer experts from the Brain Tumor Center at Cincinnati Children's Hospital, as well as the New Mexico Department of Health and Air Force Special Operations Command Surgeon General.

Officials said that, in the 13 years since a case of DMG or DIPG occurred at Cannon, there "was an 8-year period where there were zero cases," and none was actually diagnosed while the active-duty member of the family was assigned to Cannon.

"Previously conducted research and leading experts in the field tell us that the underlying cause of DMG/DIPG is unknown at this time. There are no known environmental exposures (chemical or radiation) or inherited genetic variations that have been validated to increase the risk of developing DMG/DIPG," Air Force officials wrote in the release.

They added that they expect to provide an update by the end of the year.

"Your concerns are our concerns," the officials said. "Our number one priority is the health and safety of our Air Commandos and their families, and we take the responsibility to investigate these risks to health very seriously."

Between 2018 and 2022, brain cancer and other nervous system cancers have ranked seventh or eighth in the 10 most diagnosed cancers among active-duty service members, depending on the year.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at

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