The United States Air Force has detected unsafe levels of a likely carcinogen in underground launch control centres at a nuclear missile base in Montana where a striking number of men and women have reported cancer diagnoses.
The discovery “is the first from an extensive sampling of active US intercontinental ballistic missile bases to address specific cancer concerns raised by missile community members,” the US Air Force Global Strike Command said in a statement on Monday.
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In the samples, two launch facilities at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana showed PCB levels higher than the thresholds recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
PCBs are oily or waxy substances the EPA has identified as a likely carcinogen.
In response to the findings, General Thomas Bussiere, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, has directed “immediate measures to begin the cleanup process for the affected facilities and mitigate exposure by our airmen and Guardians to potentially hazardous conditions”, the Associated Press (AP) reported.
After a military briefing was obtained by the AP in January showing that at least nine current or former missile staff at Malmstrom were diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a rare blood cancer, the Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine launched a study to look at cancers among the entire missile community, checking for the possibility of disease clusters.
Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is a blood cancer that uses the body’s infection-fighting lymph system to spread.
But there could be hundreds more cancers of all types, based on new data from a grassroots group of former missile launch officers and their surviving family members.
According to the Torchlight Initiative, at least 268 soldiers who served at nuclear missile sites, or their surviving family members, have self-reported being diagnosed with cancer, blood diseases or other illnesses over the past several decades.
At least 217 of those reported cases are cancers and at least 33 of them are non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
What is notable about those reported numbers is that the “missileer” community is very small. Only a few hundred service members serve as missileers at each of the country’s three silo-launched Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile bases in any given year.
Missileers are male and female military officers who serve in underground launch control centres where they are responsible for monitoring and, if needed, launching fields of silo-based nuclear weapons.
Two missileers spend sometimes days at a time on watch in underground bunkers, ready to turn the key and fire Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles if ordered to do so by the president.
The Minuteman III silos and underground control centres were built more than 60 years ago.
Much of the electronics and infrastructure is decades old. Missileers have raised health concerns multiple times over the years about ventilation, water quality and potential toxins they cannot avoid as they spend 24 to 48 hours on duty underground.
There have been only about 21,000 missileers in total since the Minuteman operations began in the early 1960s, according to the Torchlight Initiative.