Air Force Missile Cancer Study Plans to Expand Testing to Vandenberg

The Air Force is broadening the scope of its study on environmental cancers at its intercontinental ballistic missile bases to include more facilities, service officials said—Vandenberg Space Force Base, a site used to test launch America’s ICBMs, will now be scrutinized.

Previously, the command focused on operational Minuteman III bases and their personnel. The Air Force has been leading a sweeping Missile Community Cancer Study to address long-held concerns of heath hazards in and around America’s missile silos, which two older studies had discounted.

“We took this to heart immediately,” Col. Tory Woodard, the commander of the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine (USAFSAM) told reporters Dec. 1. “We are fully dedicated to looking into this to maintain the safety of our operations and our people.”

The command has also completed a cleanup and reopened one of the facilities at Malmstrom Air Force Base where polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were found at levels above the acceptable threshold set by the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA has deemed PCBs “probable human carcinogens” that “have been demonstrated to cause a variety of adverse health effects.” 

USAFSAM and a team of defense medical officials have finished collecting a second round of environmental test samples looking for hazardous chemicals at the three operational ICBM bases, the officials added.

The study team provided reporters with a wide-ranging update on the status of Global Strike Command’s Missile Community Cancer Study, an in-depth review to determine whether missileers and other ICBM support personnel are at elevated risk for cancer—a longtime concern shared by many current and former Airmen that gained new traction earlier this year when a presentation detailing cases of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a blood cancer, at Malmstrom appeared online. 

In August, AFGSC announced the results of its first round of environmental sampling at the three missile bases, finding elevated amounts of PCBs at two facilities at Malmstrom and one at Minot Air Force Base, N.D. All told, some 2,000 air, swipe, soil, and other samples were taken at the three bases. Trace amounts below the EPA standard were also found at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo. 

Air Force Global Strike Command ordered cleanups for all three bases and closed the three facilities that had elevated levels of PCBs. 

The cleanup process was developed by the EPA, Air Force medical professionals, and Minuteman III program engineers, said Col. Gregory Coleman, surgeon general for AFGSC.

“That process included going out and scrubbing and removing the PCBs and then treating them, wiping them down with other chemicals, and then taking all of those back to our civil engineering squadron and their hazmat program for disposal,” added Col. Dan Voorhies of the 20th Air Force, which oversees the ICBM fleet. The facilities were then retested.

A second round of testing took place in October and November, concluding just before Thanksgiving, said Woodard. Results will be released in January or February.

Around the same time, the study’s leaders hope to expand their testing to Vandenberg, which hosts the 377th Test and Evaluation Group, and regularly conducts Minuteman III test launches to “validate and verify the safety, security, effectiveness, and readiness” of the missile.  

“We are currently building a sampling strategy and plan to do sampling at Vandenberg,” said Col. Joanna Rentes, chair of the occupational and environmental health department at USAFSAM. “Once that gets approved, we expect to execute early 2024.”  

“On the Vandenberg side, we want to make sure that we are giving it the same … look that we’re giving at the other installations,” added Coleman. 

A third round of environmental sampling at the three operational missile bases will take place in the spring—soil sampling is difficult when many of the northern bases are covered in snow, Woodard noted.

The study team has been looking at issues such as contaminated drinking water, which many Airmen have been suspicious of for years, and hazardous agricultural chemicals used on privately owned land around missile facilities. The process is monthslong because the team will account for seasonal variations.

The other part of the study is an epidemiological review of current and former missileers, comparing their rates of cancer against other Airmen and the general public, similar to other recent studies examining whether aircrew and other flightline personnel experience higher cancer rates. Like those studies, the review is looking at a broad range of cancers, 14 in total, Woodard said. 

“The study continues and we are continuing to evaluate the data as it comes in,” Woodard said. “We hope to have some initial results in the near future.” A slideshow shown as part of an AFGSC town hall shared with reporters projects the epidemiological review to be complete by June 2024.

Throughout the process, the Air Force has stressed that whatever happened in the past, the current study will attempt to turn over as many stones as possible.

“It is difficult to speak about past studies,” Woodard said. “The studies that were done in 2001 and 2005, the DOD did not have a large electronic medical record.”

Since then, service medical officials say data has become easier to access, AFGSC has enabled increased physical access to classified facilities, and testing technology has improved.

“We’re in a much better position now to do this study,” Woodard said. “We immediately jumped on this. The safety and health of our Airmen is paramount and informing the rest of our previously served Airmen using this data is also one of our major efforts and concerns.”