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Asbestos on Aircraft Carriers

Quick Summary

Prior to the knowledge that asbestos was dangerous, the United States Navy added asbestos to more than three hundred products on their ships. Asbestos is toxic to humans and many people become sick with mesothelioma or another asbestos-related illness.

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Asbestos and Aircraft Carriers Explained

Most of the Asbestos Exposure on Navy Ships occurred prior to 1980. It was during this time that the Navy began removing its asbestos-containing products — but not before many U.S. veterans had already gotten sick from their exposure to asbestos. It is estimated that thousands of Navy personnel were exposed to the substance, which may yet lead to asbestos-related illnesses in these veterans.

The Navy was adamant about using asbestos on aircraft carriers and other ships because it was cheap, had a good tensile strength and was resistant to chemical and heat damage. This made asbestos a good insulator and it was widely used on ships and submarines, particularly those dating from World War II.

Asbestos-Containing Items

More than three hundred materials containing asbestos were found on Navy ships from the 1930s until the 1970s. This is when it became obvious that asbestos was associated with health hazards, such as asbestosis and mesothelioma. It was found that asbestos was located in the sleeping quarters, common areas, navigation rooms, mess halls and boiler rooms on these ships. As a result, many sailors were exposed to the substance as part of their service to the military.

Asbestos was used in a variety of objects and machines on Naval ships, including:

  • Valves
  • Pumps
  • Pipe Insulation
  • Boilers


Valves were a big part of the inner workings of the aircraft carrier. They controlled the flow of fluids and gasses on the ships. There were many different kinds of valves used on ships, most of which contained asbestos.

Asbestos was preferred on valves because it wasn’t flammable and it was able to sustain high pressures and chemical gasses. Those who worked on the valves were often the boiler operators or pipe fitters on the ship. They were responsible for disassembling the valves on a regular basis in order to fix the valves. This action was associated with asbestos exposure for the sailor who disassembled the values.


Asbestos was also found in the pumps on aircraft carriers. Pumps were necessary for cooling and heating the ship, as well as pumping water from the ship if it seeped in. These bilge pumps were coated with asbestos.

The sailors who maintained the pumps were called machinists. When the asbestos was removed or repaired, many machinists did not use respiratory equipment or wet down the asbestos to keep it from flying into the air. Whenever gaskets needed to be replaced on the pumps, the sailors were exposed to asbestos as part of the repair process.

Pipe Insulation

Pipe insulation was another source of asbestos on aircraft carriers. Pipes usually travelled throughout the entire ship and were covered in insulation made from asbestos. The asbestos was used to insulated the pipes so that they would cool down or heat up, depending on the type of pipe involved. Pipes carried steam to all parts of the Navy aircraft carrier. The asbestos was wrapped with a layer of felt that was then covered with tar. This felt wrapping contained up to 50 percent asbestos. These pipes traveled everywhere in the ship, from the sailors’ quarters to the sailor’s mess hall. This exposed all soldiers on board to asbestos.

If the pipes were ever damaged in some way, the pipe coatings needed to be replaced. This allowed asbestos to infiltrate the air as the workers worked to replace the coating. The coating process involved a mixture of asbestos and water that was used to make the new coating material. This, too, released asbestos into the air.


Boilers were used on Naval ships to help the ships sail. They involved high energy, high temperatures and high steam pressures. Besides powering the ship, the boilers were used to run other machinery on the ship as well. Before 1973, the boiler manufacturers told the Navy personnel to coat the boilers with insulation containing about fifteen percent asbestos. Eventually, the asbestos particles would begin to break down so that the asbestos fibers were inhaled, causing the fibers to lodge in the chest or the abdomen of the workers.

Some of the sailors on the aircraft carriers were boilermakers. These workers were responsible for making sure the boilers were working properly and as a result, they sustained a heavy influx of asbestos as they inhaled. The quarters that housed the boilers were small and cramped, making it almost unavoidable to not become exposed to asbestos.

Other asbestos-containing products on aircraft carriers included the following:

  • Packing materials
  • Paneling
  • Gaskets
  • Grinders
  • Hydraulic assemblies
  • Insulating materials
  • Adhesives
  • Deck covering materials
  • Tubes
  • Cables
  • Aggregate mixers
  • Capacitors
  • Block insulation

Anyone exposed to these items may have also been exposed to airborne asbestos. Up to as long as five decades later, many servicemen and women developed mesothelioma or another asbestos-related illness.

Nowadays, there are not as many products containing this deadly substance aboard ships — however it hasn’t been fully banned from ships. As a result, some ships still carry asbestos and are still exposing service workers to these asbestos fibers. Fortunately, the Navy has removed asbestos from most areas on their aircraft carriers.

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Compensation for Navy Personnel

Because thousands of Navy personnel were exposed to asbestos and came down with an asbestos-related disease, the Navy has a trust fund set up to compensate its sailors for the illnesses they received as part of their work in the service.

If you worked on an aircraft carrier, it is likely that you were exposed to asbestos and could develop mesothelioma or another asbestos-associated illness. For this reason, you need to be screened periodically for asbestos-related illnesses, such as asbestosis and mesothelioma. There are several VA hospitals that specialize in the treatment of mesothelioma and this is generally paid for by the U.S. Navy.

Veterans Support Team
Christopher Dryfoos PhotoWritten by:

Contributing Author

Christopher Dryfoos is a journalist and member of the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA). As the grandson of the U.S. Navy’s first forensic pathologist, he aims to help veterans with mesothelioma access needed care.

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