Military Life

Military bases linked to cancer and health problems

CBS recently released a story about toxic chemicals at Air Force bases and their link to severe health problems, like cancer and birth defects, but this is in no way new information. In 2001, the Deseret News raised the same question: Do military bases have links to cancer?


The correlation, at least, is astounding.

Exposure to jet fuels can occur if you have skin contact with soil or water contaminated from a spill or leak. You might breathe in some of the chemicals evaporating in the vicinity of an aircraft during cold engine startup. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Master Sgt. Beth Holliker.)

In 2001, communities near Hill Air Force Base in Utah showed a high risk of developing brain cancer, while Fallon Naval Air Station was investigated for acute childhood leukemia incidents, and Kelly Air Force Base near San Antonio, Texas, was revealed to have contributed to water and air pollution when clusters of cancer and leukemia popped up.

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At the time, however, officials kept to a firm statement: Correlation does not equate causation.

In other words, it was clear that military bases were contaminating the water, air, and environment. It was clear that there were higher-than-expected cases of severe illness. It was not clear that one caused the other.

Air Force firefighters extinguish burning jet fuel during a fire training exercise at Fort McCoy, Wis. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Heather Cozad)

Air Force bases, in particular, show high cases of contamination for a few reasons: jet fuel is extremely toxic by itself, but it is also highly flammable, requiring toxic flame retardants. These leak into the ground and contaminate water supplies; jet fuel is also known to pollute the air, especially in areas like airports or flight lines, where there are high volumes of active engines.

In 2016, residents near Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Michigan discovered that the water they drank, bathed in, swam in, and fished in was contaminated with jet fuel, cancer-causing chlorinated solvents, and toxic fire retardants. Military families and members of the local community have since reported cases of hypertension, lung disease, nervous system issues, blood vessel damage, asthma, spinal defects, and thyroid problems.

Members of the 151st Air Refueling Wing Medical Group don their hazardous material suits for training at Camp Williams, Utah. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Jeremy Giacoletto-Stegall)

And now, in 2018, the communities near Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, are considering a class action lawsuit due to the health defects linked to contaminated water.

The number of people — service members, their families, and civilians in communities near military bases — affected is in the millions (as of 2014, there were 21.8 million living veterans alone).

Related: How Vietnam veterans can get a rare cancer from this parasite

So, while it has been clear since the first World War that the United States and its military has a global impact, and therefore an imperative to maintain military superiority so we may continue to defend not only our way of life, but the livelihoods of our friends and allies, the question remains: at what cost?

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