News Branch Air Force

Asbestos, cancer-linked toxins reported in Air Force nuclear bases for years

Official reviews said the nuclear silos were free of health hazards, but there were documented repeated exposures for years.
Nicholas Slayton Avatar
Airman 1st Class Anthony White, left, and Senior Airman Mark McCormick, 341st Missile Maintenance Squadron survivable systems team members, perform maintenance on a launch control center blast door Oct. 29, 2019, at a Missile Alert Facility near Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont. The SST’s primary task is to perform LCC maintenance, including the blast door. (Airman 1st Class Jacob M. Thompson/U.S. Air Force)

The Air Force is currently investigating its nuclear launch silos for potential cancerous risks, but the service has been aware of toxic dangers at the facilities for years, released files show.

That is according to a new report by the Associated Press. The AP obtained several Air Force documents dating back decades through a Freedom of Information Act request. The documents show that not only did the Air Force know of the dangers many chemicals in the nuclear missile bases posed, there had been repeated leaks or spills that impacted personnel in the launch control centers at the facilities. 

The ground-based ICBMs are located at three facilities in the Midwest: F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, and Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota. Documents obtained by the AP found internal reports of asbestos, urgently marked “PRIORITY,” from 1992, as well as reports of asbestos leaks in missile silos in 1989. One incident in 1987 saw a leak of polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs in the form of a sticky, oozing substance, causing headaches and nausea among those impacted. 

Air Force reviews of the facilities in 2001 and 2005 claimed that the LCCs were safe, with the former saying the area was “free of health hazards.” This is despite several cases of potential or confirmed asbestos and PCB exposure for almost two decades. 

Launch control centers (or LCCs), located dozens of feet underground, are crewed around the clock, with crews spending hours inside the confined space, with the risk of exposure to toxic chemicals. In the last year several former personnel came forward, saying they had developed cancer. In response, the Air Force launched a series of measures to test the current LCCs and to see how many people were impacted by the hazardous material.

Subscribe to Task & Purpose Today. Get the latest military news and culture in your inbox daily.

Earlier this summer, Air Force Global Strike Command, which oversees the nation’s intercontinental ballistic missiles, said that it had detected two cases of elevated levels of polychlorinated biphenyls in the LCCs at Minot and Malmstrom. A clean up of all three nuclear facilities was ordered. A December update by AFGSC found that four instances of elevated levels of PCBs had been detected in the LCCs at Malmstrom and F.E. Warren. 

Additionally the service is trying to accurately count exactly how many current or former missile personnel developed cancer. That expanded survey was announced earlier this month, going beyond people who worked directly in the LCCs to the wider group that worked on ground-based nuclear missiles. 

PCBs have, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, “potential carcinogenic and non-carcinogenic effects.” They were outlawed in the 1970s but instances of exposure thanks to previously built facilities remain a risk, and as the documents obtained by the Associated Press show, more common in the years than the Air Force let on.

American nuclear silos have had their own range of issues, from outdated electronics and computing systems to reports of troops taking LSD

Currently the U.S. military is working on replacing its Minutemen III intercontinental ballistic missiles with the new Sentinel ICBMs. As part of that work, the Air Force plans major overhauls of the three nuclear missile bases, including replacing the existing LCCs. However, the existing LCCs, which have had a history of toxic exposure, will remain in use until then. 

The latest on Task & Purpose