GREAT FALLS — A recent study conducted at Malmstrom Air Force Base concluded that there are higher levels of PCB, a probable human carcinogen, than federal regulation allows.
The U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine is conducting a “Missile Community Cancer Study." According to their website, it was designed to be a formal assessment that addresses specific cancer concerns raised by missile community members across related career fields. It also examines the possibility of clusters of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma at intercontinental ballistic missile bases.
PCBs, or Polychlorinated Biphenyls, are man-made organic chemicals consisting of carbon, hydrogen, and chlorine atoms. They have no smell or taste and can vary in texture from a solid wax to an oily liquid. They were manufactured in the US from 1929 through 1979 and had many industrial and commercial uses.
According to the Air Force Global Strike Command, initial results show Malmstrom Air Force Base had PCB levels above the cleanup threshold designated by law.
A team from the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine and the Defense Centers for Public Health (USAFSAM-DCPH) conducted air and swipe testing for PCBs and other contaminants at Malmstrom AFB from June 22-29. All air samples from the Launch Control Centers (LCCs) and the Launch Control Support Building were non-detectable for PCBs.
The reports says that 300 surface swipe samples were taken from across all Malmstrom AFB LCCs. 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.
While that number might appear low, experts say that any exposure to PCB can be dangerous.
PCBs can have a wide array of negative health effects, including increasing your risk for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and other cancers, as they were determined to be “Probable Human Carcinogens”.
Other serious potential effects on the immune system are also high, including having negative reproductive and neurological effects.
U.S. Senator Jon Tester responded to the news with a letter to the Department of Defense, saying, “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 continued, saying “...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. It is urgent that the Air Force work immediately to identify any potential risk to service members, and ensure anyone who has been exposed to harmful conditions or that incurred an illness due to their service receive the care they need.”
In a statement, U.S. Senator Steve Daines said, “I am deeply concerned by the reports that dangerous carcinogens were found at Malmstrom air force base. I’ve been in contact with the Air Force and believe the Department of Defense needs to take immediate action to clean up the affected facilities and ensure all missileers who were exposed receive proper care.”
Here is the full statement released by Malmstrom Air Force Base on Wednesday, August 9, 2023:
What does this mean for the base right now?
The U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine and the Defense Centers for Public Health (USAFSAM-DCPH) tested every LCC and Missile Alert Facility site at Malmstrom, and of the 300 total samples taken, 279 returned non-detectable results. For those that did return detectable results, immediate measures to begin the cleanup process for the affected facilities and mitigate exposure by our Airmen and Guardians to potentially hazardous conditions are being taken.
The commander directed special measures to prevent exposure to PCBs in the locations identified by the survey as requiring mitigation. These measures will be implemented by the workforce working in those locations. The intercontinental ballistic missile nuclear alert mission continues unimpeded throughout the cleanup and mitigation, continuing Air Force Global Strike Command’s strategic deterrence mission.
What is being done to correct these issues?
We will continue to keep our Airmen out of areas that have not been mitigated for elevated PCBs. Measures will stay in place until the sites are safe.
This is the first sample of many the command will review as part of the Missile Community Cancer Study. As samples come back, the command will mitigate the effects based on the medical data. Once all samples are back, we will engage in a holistic response. The overall results of the study will also inform Air Force Global Strike Command’s Sentinel modernization effort as we begin to build a strategic deterrent built to modern standards.
What kind of cleanup is done?
We are currently partnered with bioenvironmental teams at each base to determine their capacity for clean-up. If they are unable, we expect to look for contract assistance.
For areas with PCB detection below EPA standards, we are cleaning those sites as well. Our medical experts are assessing the potential impact, if any, based on exposure in those sites. Since PCBs were not found in the air, we are focused on the locations where they were detected on surfaces.
How often are samples taken? Will they be done more frequently as a result?
Historical background: “As part of the visits, the teams reviewed current environmental sampling efforts, with an eye towards determining what future efforts would be appropriate. One limitation medical teams have is that electronic monitoring equipment that can be used in other occupational environments must be specifically cleared to be used in the launch facilities and launch control centers. This often requires complex reviews and waivers to allow the equipment to be used in the sensitive spaces. Since the prior studies in 2001 and 2005, newer technology is available to the medics, but these will now need to be cleared. AFGSC leadership is aware and will be assisting USAFSAM in expediting these clearances, where possible.”
For the current study, approximately 2000 samples per base were collected, including air, soil, surfaces, and other materials to systematically investigate any potentially hazardous exposures. Once USAFSAM receives the raw data returns from the initial tests, they will perform quality checks, analyze, and interpret the information. We anticipate a minimum of 60 days, from when each sample was taken, before any wholistic results are available.
What about those exposed? Are they being alerted?
Yes, for current active-duty members, commanders are directly reaching out to inform them of the study results. We are working with the Air Force Medical Service and request veterans or concerned servicemembers to view the Missile Community Cancer Study website for the most current information.
In concert with the article release, the executive summary will be posted to the Missile Community Cancer Study site, offering additional information found in the study data. Air Force Global Strike Command is committed to being as transparent as possible during this process.
On Friday, August 11, the commander of the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom AFB, Colonel Barry Little, released the following statement:
I am committed to providing a clean, safe environment for the Airmen of the 341 MW to perform their strategic mission and being open and transparent about what we know as an enterprise. As the Missile Community Cancer Study progresses, we are sharing results and information with Airmen and families as quickly as possible.
I share the concerns that Airmen and their families have about potential risks to their health. I’m extremely proud of the way that Air Force Global Strike Command and the Air Force Medical Services team are responding to those concerns with timely, face-to-face communication and empathy.
Throughout this process, the 341st Missile Wing remains ready. The intercontinental ballistic missile alert mission continues uninterrupted throughout cleanup and mitigation, performing Air Force Global Strike Command’s 24/7/365 strategic deterrence mission.
Click here to visit the Air Force website devoted to this issue.
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