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Last Modified March 17, 2022
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Why Was Asbestos Used on Aircraft Carriers?

Before the long-term health risks of asbestos exposure were widely known, asbestos was incorporated into countless products used to build and operate Navy ships. Because fires aboard warships were a routine and potentially devastating threat to Navy assets and personnel, the extensive use of asbestos insulation was a key aspect of ship construction.

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

Although medical experts later identified asbestos as a potent carcinogen, it once served as the preferred material for containing heat and preventing the outbreak of fires at sea. Asbestos was once used in vinyl floor tiles, valves, water pump gaskets and various types of insulation for piping and auxiliary equipment.

Its affordability and unrivaled fireproofing qualities led to extensive use of the material in Navy shipbuilding, despite the dangers it posed to service members and shipbuilders. 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 vessels 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, a cancer that 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.

USS Enterprise documents from the late 1950s and early ’60s describe ample use of asbestos-containing gaskets, asbestos tile and asbestos insulation in numerous ship compartments.

Asbestos gaskets could once be found in Enterprise’s main feed pumps, tube sheet exchangers and main condensate pump. Asbestos cloth lagging was applied to all the ship’s piping and related components. Service members also faced exposure risks from vinyl asbestos tile. Records show asbestos tile was used in the ship’s laundry room, laundry issue room and laundry receiving room.

Extensive asbestos use was also described aboard Forrestal-class aircraft carriers, which includes 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: Many different forms of asbestos insulation were used on Navy vessels to protect hulls, piping and auxiliary equipment. For example, asbestos spray insulation was applied to hulls, asbestos cloth lagging insulation was wrapped around piping and related components, and asbestos packing was installed in pumps. Asbestos insulation around pipes passed through navigation rooms, mess halls and even sleeping quarters.
  • Marine Furring: Asbestos was incorporated into marine furring as a fireproofing material that was used to insulate 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 who worked and lived on aircraft carriers were surrounded by 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?

Those at the highest risk for asbestos-related disease include Navy service members involved in the maintenance, repair or removal of damaged asbestos materials. Those tasked with maintaining boilers and engine rooms were at high risk for exposure. These workers handled asbestos-containing gaskets and valves and frequently removed damaged asbestos insulation from ships.

Shipfitters and pipefitters were often required to saw through asbestos-covered pipes, which released airborne fibers in large quantities. Poor ventilation on these ships worsened the problem because airborne asbestos was often trapped below deck.

As asbestos-contaminated products deteriorate over time, fibers are released into the air. Any service member exposed to airborne asbestos fibers on a regular basis was at an elevated risk of developing lung cancer, mesothelioma and other severe respiratory illnesses later in life because it takes 20 to 50 years for these diseases to develop.

Health risks from asbestos exposure also applied to shipyard workers involved in the construction of Navy vessels. Navy veterans and civilians who worked in shipyards from the 1930s through the 1990s may have been exposed to asbestos because the material was widely used in shipbuilding and construction during that time. Family members of shipyard workers were at risk of secondary exposure when these workers unknowingly carried asbestos fibers home on their clothing.

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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.

Navy Aircraft Carriers That Used Asbestos

Archived documents, including purchase orders, repair logs and related memos, confirm the pervasive use of asbestos products aboard U.S. Navy aircraft carriers. Certain manufacturers, including Warren and Buffalo, which made pumps, and Westinghouse Electric, which made turbines, required asbestos parts for marine equipment to function properly.

USS Enterprise documents from the late 1950s and early ’60s describe ample use of asbestos-containing gaskets, asbestos tile and asbestos insulation in numerous ship compartments. Extensive asbestos use was also described aboard Forrestal-class aircraft carriers, which includes USS Forrestal, USS Saratoga, USS Ranger and USS Independence.

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)

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