The Air Force is investigating whether children who live at New Mexico’s Cannon Air Force Base are more likely to develop brain cancer than those at other installations.
Since 2010, three children have been diagnosed with rare, fast-growing tumors, known as diffuse midline gliomas, while living at Cannon or after being stationed there, the base’s 27th Special Operations Wing said in an Oct. 23 release.
Their deaths have prompted the Air Force to study whether the condition, also called diffuse intrinsic pontine gliomas, may disproportionately affect children at the special operations hub.
“It’s disheartening to think that me volunteering to serve in the Air Force has caused my son to die,” one enlisted airman, whose 13-year-old son died of the condition in 2021, told Air Force Times. “It’s an awful, awful feeling.”
The Air Force launched its study in January, four months after Cannon officials learned of the concerns on a Facebook page for military spouses, wing spokesperson Jozlin Molette said in an email.
The Air Force study team is gathering data on how often diffuse midline gliomas and other brain cancers occur at Cannon and in the wider community.
The investigation, run by the Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine’s epidemiology team, hasn’t yet found any common threads between the cases of the three children that have died, the service said.
Cancer struck regardless of what job each child’s caretakers held at Cannon, or how long they had lived at the base, the service said. Molette declined to provide further information about their cases, citing health privacy laws.
Researchers have consulted cancer experts at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, a leading institution in the field, and the New Mexico Department of Health for more information on how brain tumors work and how prevalent they are in the area surrounding Cannon.
The team is also looking at other active duty Air Force bases and the broader civilian population. Molette did not answer which Air Force installations are being used to compare cancer incidence rates.
Nearly 800 people are diagnosed with diffuse midline gliomas each year, most of whom are under the age of 15, according to the federal National Cancer Institute. There are no known causes or cures; around half of those with the condition die within five years.
In comparison, nearly 25,000 Americans are expected to be diagnosed with brain and other nervous system cancers in 2023, according to the National Cancer Institute. The federal government projects almost 2 million people will be diagnosed with any form of cancer this year.
The Air Force said it expects to have enough data to “comprehensively assess and compare rates with the civilian population” by the end of the year.
“We appreciate your patience as we continue gathering and assessing data to provide you the most complete information we can,” Deputy Wing Commander Col. Brent Greer wrote in the release. “Our No. 1 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.”
Cannon is home to around 7,800 military and civilian employees, as well as aircraft ranging from multiple C-130 gunship and transport variants to the tiltrotor CV-22B Osprey airlifter, U-28A Draco intelligence plane and the MQ-9 Reaper attack drone.
The technical sergeant who spoke to Air Force Times said she worked at Cannon when her son was born. She recalled serving with a superintendent who had survived a similar illness.
“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, brain cancer,’” she said. Now, she said, the families of children who have died of cancer wonder if the tumors are linked to the base.
The woman said some parents are considering the possible environmental factors that could have led to tumors, like their proximity to the substances and technologies used at military installations and airports.
While it’s not certain that Cannon itself is to blame, the woman said, “if there are other factors that are increasing the risks for certain types of cancers, then I believe that people should be aware.”
She hopes the Air Force will start taking more proactive measures to keep airmen and their families cancer-free, like curtailing the use of potentially carcinogenic chemicals and keeping base housing clean.
But plenty of her questions remain unanswered.
“Did I drink the water straight out of the tap when I was pregnant with my son? Did living in my ancient base housing cause something? Was there asbestos in my home? Was it all the pig fields and the cow fields, piled high with manure — did that have anything to do with it?” she said. “I just can’t help but wonder.”
The Cannon study joins a growing body of research into the potential link between military service and cancer.
A Pentagon study, made public earlier this year, confirmed high rates of cancer among military pilots and aircraft maintainers after earlier studies had found service members faced no greater risk than the American public.
The Air Force is also in the midst of a similar investigation into whether the airmen who manage America’s nuclear arsenal are at greater risk of cancer and other health impacts, like immune or reproductive system problems, as a result of their jobs.
Air Force Global Strike Command, which oversees bomber aircraft and multiple types of nuclear weapons, said Monday that initial efforts to rid missile launch facilities at three bases of potential carcinogens were “seeing success.”
Cleaning teams are wiping down contaminated surfaces with a mineral oil wash and a solvent scrub, then retesting each spot and sending the samples to a lab to see whether the process worked, the Air Force said in a release. It may take multiple tries to reduce the chemicals below the level deemed unsafe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“These results are a positive step toward the clean and safe work environment our airmen deserve,” Global Strike boss Gen. Thomas Bussiere said in a release.
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.