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Asbestos and the U.S. Air Force

Quick Summary

The United States Air Force has helped protect our nation from overseas threats since the 1940s. From World War II to the Korean War and the War in Vietnam, U.S. Air Force veterans have served bravely and selflessly. Many of these servicemen did not know, however, that during their time in the Air Force they were being harmed by an enemy force much closer to home: asbestos.

Up until the 1990s, asbestos exposure was rampant at Air Force bases, including at aircraft maintenance stations for jets, propeller planes, helicopters, and other aircraft.

When the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) introduced bans on certain asbestos uses, the Air Force started taking precautionary measures of their own – but not before a lot of the damage had already been done. Tens of thousands of service personnel were exposed to lethal quantities of asbestos. Today, Air Force servicemen, especially veterans, remain at increased risk of developing asbestos-related diseases.

Asbestos Exposure on Air Force Bases and Aircraft

In 2009, the Air Force paid for the removal of 6,000 feet of asbestos-coated stem pipeline at Illinois’s former Chanute Air Force Base, which closed in 1993. But this isn’t the only base in need of attention. Asbestos was used in virtually every building of Air Force hangars, barracks, and offices – some of which housed tens of thousands of Airmen, civilians, and their families.

Historically, the Air Force also used asbestos in all its aircraft. Clutches, brakes, cockpit heating systems, heat shields for engines, electrical wiring in the cargo bays, and many more parts and systems were coated with asbestos, putting aircraft mechanics at among the highest for risk of exposure.

U.S. Airforce Veterans and Asbestos Exposure

There is no doubt asbestos was prevalent across every Air Force base. It posed less of a risk as long as it remained undisturbed. Dangerous exposure occurred when building construction or repair work released microscopic asbestos fibers into the air, allowing them to be breathed in by anybody nearby.

Air Force workers were exposed to asbestos-containing materials and equipment including, but not limited to:

  • Wall and ceiling insulation
  • Insulation for pipes, electrical wiring, and jet exhausts
  • Fireproofing materials
  • Soundproofing panels
  • Adhesives, coatings, and paints
  • Drywall, floor tiles, and roofing
  • Vehicle parts
  • Furnaces
  • HVAC systems

Air Force Jobs Affected by Asbestos

Certain roles in the Air Force affected its servicemen more than others, some exposing workers to the asbestos-containing materials on a daily basis. A few of the many jobs Air Force veterans held include:

  • Aircraft Mechanic: Spending most of their time in shops and hangars, aircraft mechanics worked amidst numerous hazardous activities as well as performing them themselves. The replacement of asbestos-containing brake pads was a particularly common and dangerous task.
  • Pilot: Pilots were at risk of asbestos exposure just from operating the equipment that mechanics repaired. And they weren’t only exposed on planes. Pilots often visited hangars and office spaces, where they were exposed to materials like fireproofing and drywall.
  • Boiler Tender: Asbestos-made boilers were (and still are) used in Air Force bases and equipment powered by steam. Boiler tenders regularly replaced asbestos-containing boiler components like gaskets, heat jackets, and sealants, chipping away at damaged asbestos and unknowingly releasing poisonous dust into hot and cramped spaces.
  • HVAC Specialist: To keep heating and cooling systems running efficiently, HVAC specialists have to install, repair, and replace systems on a regular basis. This exposes them to a number of high-temperature materials like steam pipes, compressors, and cooling tower equipment, all fireproofed with asbestos. Again, their workplaces were confined and enclosed.
  • Vehicle Manager: The Air Force uses a diverse range of specialized vehicles for various maintenance needs on base. Vehicle management would be responsible for inspection, troubleshooting, and repair. This gave them routine, hands-on access to damaged (and thus high-risk) clutch facings, brake shoes, linings, and other materials built with asbestos for its anti-friction properties. Despite government warnings, auto parts can contain asbestos even today.
  • Welder: In the Air Force, these are the workers responsible for making and repairing the metal components critical to aircraft function. In general, welders are known to face more hazards than most: not only asbestos in products like welding rods, but also excessive heat, smoke, metal splinters, and toxic dust.
  • Plumber/Pipefitter: Plumbers and pipefitters install and repair plumbing and piping for boiler controls, hydraulic systems, and pneumatic systems both on land and on aircraft. They were exposed to asbestos through a variety of common activities, like cutting into old pipelines, stripping away old cement pipe from corroded water lines, and insulating boiler fireboxes.
  • Aviation Machinist’s Mate: As well as performing routine aircraft engine maintenance and preparing aircraft for flight, aviation machinist’s mates sometimes had to test, repair, and overhaul engines and propellers. This meant working regularly on high-temperature machinery and using tools fitted with asbestos pads.
  • Gunner’s Mate: Also known as GMs, gunner’s mates maintain the armament systems and explosive devices on aircraft. They also operate machines like smoke screen generators. For all duties, they were required to wear “protective” gloves made with asbestos, which protected against burns while releasing deadly fibers with wear and tear. Additional exposure came from parts of the aircraft damaged under fire.

Air Force Veterans and Mesothelioma

Whether involved in cleanup efforts or working in older buildings and aircraft in need of asbestos removal, Airmen are still at risk of exposure. So are the military families exposed secondhand.

Worse, the risk needn’t have existed in the first place. Manufacturers of asbestos-containing materials were well aware of asbestos dangers, but instead of making this knowledge public, they prioritized profit over the protection of those who so bravely protected us.

As a result, veterans account for over 30 percent of all mesothelioma cases.

If you believe you or a veteran you know suffers from mesothelioma symptoms, you can get help seeking justice for your injuries. Sokolove Law offers free legal consultations and has more than 40 years of experience defending veterans and their families.

Contact us today for a free legal consultation to see if we can help you.