7 Min Read
Last Updated: 10/05/2023
Fact Checked

Written by Aaron Munz | Edited By Walter Pacheco

Why Was Asbestos Used on Aircraft Carriers?

Before people knew that asbestos is dangerous, the Navy used it in many parts of their ships. This was because fires on ships can cause a lot of damage and hurt people. So, to help protect the ship and those onboard, the Navy used asbestos insulation.

Aviation Boatswains Mate
An aviation boatswain’s mate directs an F/A-18F Super Hornet aboard the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis.

Medical experts have discovered that asbestos can cause cancer. But it was once the most popular material for keeping things cool and stopping fires on ships. Asbestos lurked in vinyl floor tiles, valves, water pump gaskets and insulation around pipes and auxiliary equipment.

Asbestos was an affordable and effective fireproofing material so the Navy used it a lot in their ships, even though it could be dangerous. The Navy published documents in the 1970s acknowledging the health risks of asbestos. It included plans to phase out the material but not remove it from Navy ships because it would have cost an estimated $2 billion. As a result, some aircraft carriers still contain legacy asbestos materials.

Asbestos exposure among Navy veterans has caused many of them to develop mesothelioma. This cancer most commonly forms around the lining of the lungs or abdomen. Asbestos exposure is also known to cause lung cancer, ovarian cancer, laryngeal cancer and several noncancerous respiratory conditions.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, records show asbestos on the USS Enterprise. It was in materials like gaskets, tiles and insulation around different parts of the ship.

Asbestos gaskets were in Enterprise’s main feed pumps, tube sheet exchangers and main condensate pump. Asbestos cloth lagging was on all the ship’s piping and related components. Service members also faced exposure risks from vinyl asbestos tile. Records show asbestos tile in the ship’s three laundry rooms.

Extensive asbestos use was also described aboard Forrestal-class aircraft carriers. They include USS Forrestal, USS Saratoga, USS Ranger and USS Independence. Navy documents list the use of asbestos cloth in the main boilers of these ships and the use of woven asbestos material in flanged casing panels. A product known as asbestos marine furring was also used to insulate boiler stacks in Forrestal-class carriers.

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Asbestos Products on Aircraft Carriers

Before asbestos use waned in the 1980s, there were few compartments in Navy aircraft carriers that did not contain the toxic material. 

  • Gaskets: Gaskets were made from asbestos because they were strong and resistant to heat and saltwater. Asbestos gaskets were found in main feed water pumps, tube sheet exchangers and main condensate pumps.
  • Insulation: The Navy used many different types of asbestos insulation on their ships to protect them. For instance, they sprayed it on the hulls and wrapped cloth around pipes and pumps. Asbestos packing in pumps provided insulation. It was even put in areas like navigation rooms, mess halls, and bedrooms.
  • Marine Furring: Asbestos in marine furring insulated boiler stacks.
  • Textiles: Navy documents describe the use of asbestos cloth in the main boilers of aircraft carriers, asbestos blankets in water drums and the use of woven asbestos material in flanged casing panels.
  • Valves: Valves on machinery and pumps were made of asbestos to resist high temperatures and prevent saltwater erosion.
  • Vinyl Floor Tiles: Asbestos was incorporated into vinyl floor tiles. The adhesive used to secure the tiles also contained asbestos.

Service members faced asbestos-containing materials in nearly every part of the ship. While all Navy personnel were at risk, certain jobs placed Navy service members at higher risk of direct exposure.

Who Was at Risk of Asbestos Exposure?

Navy service members who worked on aircraft carriers were in danger of coming into contact with asbestos. This could have happened while they were repairing, maintaining or taking away damaged materials. Those responsible for keeping boilers and engine rooms running faced a greater risk. They handled items like gaskets and valves made from asbestos, as well as removing insulation.

Shipfitters and pipefitters had to cut through pipes that were wrapped in asbestos. This released a lot of tiny fibers into the air. The ships usually didn’t have good ventilation, so the fibers stayed inside and made it worse.

As products with asbestos in them get older, tiny fibers can release from them. If someone encountered these fibers on an ongoing basis, they could be at risk of developing serious conditions. Examples include lung cancer and mesothelioma when they are adults. It usually takes between 20 and 50 years for these illnesses to show up after being exposed.

People who worked in shipyards building Navy ships between the 1930s and 1990s may have come into contact with asbestos. Even if those workers didn’t know it, they might have brought home some of the fibers on their clothes. This put their family members at risk for secondary exposure.

Is Asbestos Still Used on Aircraft Carriers?

There’s a chance new asbestos gaskets and brakes may be used in aircraft carrier machinery because these products are still legally imported into the U.S.

Legacy asbestos materials that haven’t been fully removed from Navy vessels may still pose an exposure risk to current service members. Some old asbestos materials were covered or encapsulated to reduce the risk of exposure, but this does not eliminate the risk to those who repair, maintain or decommission vessels.

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Navy Aircraft Carriers That Used Asbestos

Records from long ago show that asbestos was used a lot on aircraft carriers in the U.S. Navy. Companies like Warren and Buffalo which made pumps. Westinghouse Electric, which made turbines, needed to use asbestos parts for their machines to work properly.

Aircraft carriers that used asbestos-containing products:

  • USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72)
  • USS America (CV-66)
  • USS Antietam (CV-36)
  • USS Bataan (CVL-29)
  • USS Belleau Wood (CVL-24)
  • USS Bennington (CV-20)
  • USS Bon Homme Richard (CV-31)
  • USS Boxer (CV-21)
  • USS Bunker Hill (CV-17)
  • USS Cabot (CVL-28)
  • USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70)
  • USS Constellation (CV-64)
  • USS Coral Sea (CVB-43)
  • USS Cowpens (CVL-25)
  • USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69)
  • USS Enterprise (CV-6)
  • USS Enterprise (CVN-65)
  • USS Essex (CV-9)
  • USS Forrestal (CV-59)
  • USS Franklin (CV-13)
  • USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CVB-42)
  • USS Hancock (CV-19)
  • USS Hornet (CV-8)
  • USS Hornet (CV-12)
  • USS Independence (CVL-22)
  • USS Independence (CV-62)
  • USS Intrepid (CV-11)
  • USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67)
  • USS Kearsarge (CV-33)
  • USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63)
  • USS Lake Champlain (CV-39)
  • USS Langley (CV-1)
  • USS Langley (CVL-27)
  • USS Lexington (CV-2)
  • USS Lexington (CV-16)
  • USS Leyte (CV-32)
  • USS Midway (CVB-41)
  • USS Monterey (CVL-26)
  • USS Nimitz (CVN-68)
  • USS Oriskany (CV-34)
  • USS Philippine Sea (CV-47)
  • USS Princeton (CVL-23)
  • USS Princeton (CV-37)
  • USS Randolph (CV-15)
  • USS Ranger (CV-4)
  • USS Ranger (CV-61)
  • USS Reprisal (CV-35)
  • USS Saipan (CVL-48)
  • USS San Jacinto (CVL-30)
  • USS Saratoga (CV-3)
  • USS Saratoga (CV-60)
  • USS Shangri-la (CV-38)
  • USS Tarawa (CV-40)
  • USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71)
  • USS Ticonderoga (CV-14)
  • USS Valley Forge (CV-45)
  • USS Wasp (CV-7)
  • USS Wasp (CV-18)
  • USS Wright (CVL-49)
  • USS Yorktown (CV-5)
  • USS Yorktown (CV-10)

Documents from the 1950s and ’60s show that asbestos was used a lot on board USS Enterprise. It was also found in many parts of Forrestal-class aircraft carriers. Examples include the USS Forrestal, Saratoga, Ranger and Independence.

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