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Mesothelioma in the Air Force

Until the late-1970s, the U.S. military used asbestos for its heat resistance and fireproofing properties. Asbestos was used in infrastructure projects throughout each branch of the military—the Navy, Army, Marines, Coast Guard, and the Air Force. Because the military used asbestos in virtually all of the buildings and vehicles built prior to 1980, veterans suffer from mesothelioma at a significantly higher rate than the general population.

History of Asbestos Use in the Air Force

Today, one-third of all mesothelioma victims are veterans. Air Force veterans that fought in wars such as the Vietnam War or the Korean War were exposed to asbestos during that time, and are at risk of developing mesothelioma today.

Veterans were exposed to asbestos in aircrafts and also in barracks. Construction workers that built the barracks and other infrastructure were exposed to asbestos over a long period of time. Asbestos was used in insulation, piping, drywall, joint compounds, caulk, ceiling tiles and flooring tiles.

Asbestos was also used in order to protect aircrafts from fires, and was used to line engines, brakes, gaskets, and electrical wiring. Aircraft mechanics that had to install and repair these components were at the highest risk for asbestos exposure because they consistently worked on aircraft. When asbestos is disturbed, it can become airborne. It can then be inhaled and become lodged in the lungs. Asbestos can also attach to someone’s clothes, hair, or skin, allowing it to be tracked to new locations and breathed in by people who weren’t at the original disturbance site.

In the 1970s, the U.S. military learned about the long-term health risks posed by asbestos exposure. As a result, the military began to remove asbestos from infrastructure across the board. In the 1980s, the Air Force started to replace asbestos in aircraft with substitute materials.

In 1994, the Air Force had a study commissioned on how to deal with asbestos throughout Air Force barracks and aircraft. The study, named “The Facilities Asbestos Management” study, was completed in 1994 and established “management principles and practices” for dealing with the hazardous material across the Air Force.

Where Air Force Veterans Were Exposed To Asbestos

Unlike the other branches of the military, the Air Force is relatively new. The Air Force was established in 1947 and stopped using asbestos in the late-1970s. There is only a 20 to 30 year period where asbestos was actively used in the Air Force, whereas other branches used the material for significantly longer periods of time.

Still, a significant number of Air Force veterans are at risk for developing mesothelioma due to asbestos exposure. Asbestos was used in transport vehicles, in aircraft, and in barracks. Here are some of the places where asbestos might have been encountered by an Air Force veteran:

Barracks

The Air Force’s barracks were often lined with asbestos. The material was used in the construction of the barracks, and typically it wasn’t released into the air unless construction was being done. The construction teams that worked on buildings and repairing the barracks are at the highest risk of developing mesothelioma due to extended asbestos exposure. They routinely disturbed asbestos as they worked on sheetrock, insulation, piping, flooring and ceiling tiles and roofing materials. As the infrastructure degraded, the asbestos fibers were more easily disturbed and released into the air.

Aircraft

The Air Force used asbestos for a wide variety of functions inside its aircraft. From the Air Force’s inception in 1947 to the late-1970s, virtually all of its aircraft contained asbestos. Asbestos helped to protect key components of the aircraft, such as the engine, from excess heat. The mechanics that installed and repaired these components had the highest risk in the Air Force of asbestos exposure. Here are some of the components where asbestos could be found inside of an aircraft:

  • Engine firewalls
  • Heating systems
  • Brakes
  • Gaskets
  • Valves
  • Electrical wiring
  • Insulation
  • Adhesives

Most of the aircraft used throughout the Cold War were lined with asbestos for its fireproofing properties. Asbestos protected aircraft components from catching fire, but as the components wore down, the risk increased of asbestos being released into the air.

Aircraft components weren’t regularly replaced, and the mechanics that repaired them were often put at risk of direct asbestos exposure. Some of the aircraft that used asbestos in that time period include:

  • U-2 Spyplanes
  • SR-71 Blackbird
  • KC-135 Stratotanker
  • F-104 Starfighter
  • B-58 Hustler
  • B-36 Peacemaker
  • B-47 Stratojet
  • B-52 Stratofortress
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