In recent years, the US Air Force has made major efforts to reduce asbestos exposure among its workforce. But Air Force veterans still are at risk of getting mesothelioma because of the high degree to which the toxic substance was used in the military for decades. The Air Face used asbestos for many purposes, due to its high heat resistance, affordability and durability. As did other branches of the military, the Air Force largely ignored the health risks associated with asbestos well into the 1970s.
To assess your risk of developing an asbestos-related disease in the future, Air Force veterans should have a thorough understanding of the various means of exposure to asbestos in this military branch.
Asbestos Exposure on Air Force Bases and Planes
The Air Force was founded in 1947 when it was deemed a completely separate branch of the military. The Air Force going back to its beginnings has a long history of using asbestos on its bases, in planes and in radar stations. Air Force bases that have an established history of of asbestos contamination include Lowry, Buckley, Williams, Ellsworth and Tinker Air Force bases.
Risky Air Force Occupations for Asbestos Exposure
Several occupations in the Air Force put military members at higher risk for asbestos exposure. Asbestos containing materials were used to construct aircraft, so Air Force members may have been unknowingly exposed to asbestos-containing materials that were used in the construction if Air Force bases. Some of the occupations that are at higher risk of developing a disease related to asbestos are:
- Air Force firefighters
- Vehicle mechanics
- Aircraft electricians
- Environmental support specialists
- Boiler workers
Also, civilians who contracted with the Air Force and did work at Air Force facilities also could have been exposed to asbestos. Some of the at risk contractor jobs including those in construction, electrical, asbestos abatement and maintenance of boilers.
Firefighters in the Air Force were also at higher risk of asbestos exposure. They were required to wear asbestos-containing personal protection equipment that protected them. This equipment was often used in damaged condition because of the restrictions on military budgets. Firefighters also had to respond to fires where there were asbestos containing materials, such as aircraft fires and building fires that contained boilers with asbestos.
Asbestos on Military Bases
The CDC did extensive research of military bases in the Air Force in 2002 and found there was asbestos present in many of them. The study by CDC determined that some of the insulation used on military bases contained anywhere from 10% to 60% amosite and chrysotile asbestos. The agency also determined that wallboard used on military bases contained anywhere from 10% to 25% chrysotile asbestos. Tile and mastic on the bases contained 5% to 8% chrysotile asbestos. (CDC.gov)
The EPA has been involved with asbestos removal on military bases, including the former Burns Air Force Radar Base based in Harney County, Oregon. During that clean up in 2004, the EPA tore down 20 abandoned Air Force buildings. They disposed of more than 370 tons of materials that contained asbestos, including pipe wrap, tiles, wallboard and insulation.
In 2009, the Air Force needed to remove 6,000 feet of asbestos coated pipeline that was located on Chanute Air Force Base, which is located in Champaign County, Illinois. The CDC also determined there was asbestos in the following areas:
- Vinyl flooring and floor tile
- Pipe insulation
- Asbestos cement
- Ceiling tiles
Asbestos on Air Force Planes
Asbestos was heavily used in the construction and maintenance of aircraft that was mostly used to protect against heat and fire. Air Force mechanics were at higher risk for being exposed to asbestos because they were more likely to be in a position to inhale asbestos dust and fibers via contact with motor parts and engines. Air Force mechanics also were likely to be exposed to asbestos in:
- Insulation for electrical wiring
- Insulation in cargo bays
- Torque valves
- Insulation for electrical wiring
- Insulation for cargo bays
Asbestos was such a common material that many members of the Air Force used it to solve mechanical issues. For example, one military veteran who worked on the problem of oil leaks in the B-29 engine stated that mechanics would wrap 36 hose fittings on every engine with asbestos inserts. This asbestos piece would serve as a heat baffle. The cost for each cylinder was only .50. Mechanics would experiment with one cylinder to determine if .50 could be used to save a very costly airplane engine. Engineering officers found that the cylinder did not suffer from oil leaks after the asbestos treatment.
Manufacturers Supplying Asbestos Materials to the Air Force
Extensive legal documentation shows that several asbestos manufacturers supplied materials containing asbestos to the Air Force. Some of these companies have been successfully found liable in personal injury lawsuits for causing the mesothelioma in Air Force veterans and other veterans of the US military;
- Johns Manville
- General Electric Company
- United Technologies Corporation
- Cleaver Brooks Company
- Pratt & Whitney
- Bendix Corp.
- Owens-Corning Fiberglass Corporation
- Fairchild-Republic Company
Many of these corporations produced gaskets and insulation for aircrafts that contained asbestos. Others were responsible for manufacturing boilers, pipes and other construction materials that are found on Air Force bases.
Air Force Veteran Sues for His Exposure to Asbestos
There have been successful lawsuits against the Air Force and the suppliers of asbestos-containing materials to the Air Force. One was the case of Leon Zbigniewicz, who was an equipment mechanic in this branch of the military from 1952 until 1972. He filed suit in 2011 and claimed his lung cancer was a result of being exposed to asbestos in his work. He also named several former several ex-civilian employers in the lawsuit.
He claimed that all defendants know that asbestos was toxic and dangerous, and they did not exercise their required reasonable duty of care to keep him safe. The military veteran claimed that he suffered disfigurement and disability and had high medical costs, as well as physical and mental pain. Zbigniewicz eventually won a settlement of $100,000 in damages.
Reductions in Asbestos Exposure in Recent Years
In the last two decades, the Air Force has been making strides in reducing the amount of asbestos exposure to its service members. The Secretary of the Air Force has created tough guidelines to deal with asbestos exposure throughout this branch of the military. At the end of 2014, the Air Force gave out an asbestos management document that outlined all of the new guidelines regarding asbestos.
However, the fact that the Air Force has now begun to take aggressive actions to remove asbestos-containing materials from buildings, planes etc. does not mean much to those who were exposed to asbestos decades ago. Mesothelioma has a long latency period between exposure and diagnosis, with some victims not being diagnosed for 50 years after exposure.
If you think you were exposed to asbestos in the Air Force and you were diagnosed with mesothelioma, you could have the right to compensation. Consult with a mesothelioma attorney as soon as you can to determine your legal options. You have only a limited time to file suit after your date of diagnosis, so be sure to act as quickly as you can.
- Asbestos Toxicity: Who Is At Risk of Exposure to Asbestos? (2015). Retrieved from https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/csem/csem.asp?csem=29&po=7