This year, the United States Air Force will celebrate its 71st birthday. The Air Force was established as its own branch of the military by Congress and President Henry S. Truman on September 18, 1947. Prior to this new organization, aircraft and pilots had been under the purview of the Army, which purchased its first airplane from Orville Wright in 1909.
The mission of the Air Force is to maintain global superiority in both air and space, a daunting, ever-changing mission. There are over 320,000 active duty military personnel who serve alongside 140,000 civilians. The Air Force works in concert with the other branches of the military to provide world-wide reconnaissance and air support.
The focus of the Air Force is aviation – they employ more than 12,000 pilots, including 735 women – but most airmen and airwomen are involved with supporting flights and base operations. To put a fighter pilot safely in the air is only made possible by the hard work of hundreds of men and women. Unfortunately, many Air Force personnel unknowingly put themselves at risk of developing mesothelioma, a cancer that kills, long after the battles in the skies are over.
The Hidden Dangers of Asbestos in Aircraft Components
Asbestos is the commercial name for a group of 6 fibrous minerals (chrysotile, amosite, crocidolite, tremolite, actinolite and anthophyllite) that were used in many industries, and by every branch in the military. Because of its strength, durability, and resistance to heat, asbestos was used for various aircraft components.
The problem with asbestos is that when it is handled, asbestos fibers can be dispersed into the air and easily inhaled. Once in the lungs, these tiny fibers may cause mesothelioma, a lethal cancer, lung cancer, or asbestosis, a chronic lung disorder. Once the dangers of asbestos were made public in the 1980s, many countries moved to stop its use in production, ban its importation, and began the slow and arduous work of safely removing the deadly mineral from buildings.
Tragically, the durable characteristics of asbestos that made it so desirable for industry have made exposures all the more fatal. It can take 20 to 50 years for mesothelioma symptoms to manifest themselves, and often these symptoms – shortness of breath, chest pain, coughing, weight loss, general fatigue, and fever – are overlooked or mistaken as something else. Because of this long latency period, the number of veterans suffering from mesothelioma continues to grow despite bans and restrictions.
For veterans of the Air Force, especially aircraft mechanics, asbestos exposure is a real concern. The asbestos content of certain aircraft brake pads, which were frequently changed by mechanics, were as high as 23 percent by weight. Other components in need of routine repair and replacement also contained asbestos, such as clutch facings, gaskets, and fire-sleeves for fluid hoses.
What this means is that many Air Force mechanics put themselves at risk of inhaling asbestos fibers on a daily basis. And because of the long period between exposure and obvious sickness, these veterans are still at risk of developing mesothelioma today.
Other Occupations and Branches of Armed Forces At-Risk
Because of its pervasive use, the threat of asbestos exposure extends throughout the Air Force and the rest of the armed forces. Asbestos was used as insulation on military bases as well as in most military vessels built before 1980. Especially at-risk veterans include those who served in occupations such as plumbers, shipbuilders, boiler operators, fireman, welders, and others.
The truth is the scope of the problem continues to grow. There are thousands of new cases each year and likely thousands more that remain undiagnosed and untreated. One of the only things that is known for sure is that veterans are an especially high-risk group, accounting for 33 percent of all mesothelioma cases.
In the 71 years since its founding, the Air Force has been instrumental in maintaining the safety of the United States. After putting their lives on the line for their country, veterans deserve a healthy retirement. The sad truth is that many veterans returned home with asbestos in their bodies – and for them, the fight is never over.