Air Force Veterans

U.S. Air Force veterans once were exposed heavily to asbestos in military bases and aircraft, placing them at risk for developing mesothelioma and other diseases related to the deadly mineral.

The U.S. Air Force has gone to great lengths in recent years to guard against asbestos exposure. But veterans remain at risk of developing mesothelioma because of the extensive use of the deadly mineral by the Air Force. Like all branches of the U.S. military through most of the 20th century, the Air Force utilized asbestos for its heat resistance, durability and affordability, while ignoring its health risks.

Value of Asbestos in the Air Force

Air Force Veterans Exposed on Bases and Planes

The Air Force dates its origin to 1947 when it was designated as an independent branch of the U.S. military forces. The Air Force also has a long history of asbestos usage, not only in the construction of bases, such as Buckley, Lowry, Williams, Ellsworth and Tinker Air Force bases, but also in radar stations and inside its planes.

Air Force Occupations at Risk

Several Air Force occupations may have put service members at risk for asbestos exposure. Asbestos materials were commonly used to build aircraft. Service members may have also been exposed to asbestos materials used in the construction of Air Force bases.

Air Force occupations at risk include:

  • Aircraft mechanics
  • Aircraft electricians
  • Vehicle mechanics
  • Environmental support specialists
  • Welders
  • Boiler workers

In addition, civilian contractors and subcontractors who performed work at Air Force bases also may have been exposed to asbestos. At-risk jobs include construction work, electrical work, asbestos abatement and boiler maintenance.

Asbestos on Bases

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) authenticated the presence of asbestos in Air Force facilities in 2002.

The CDC study also showed a portion of the insulation contained 10 to 60 percent amosite and chrysotile asbestos. In addition, the agency found that wallboard contained 10 to 25 percent chrysotile asbestos, and tile and mastic contained approximately 5 to 8 percent chrysotile asbestos.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) removed asbestos and other hazardous substances from the former Burns Air Force Radar Base in Harney County, Oregon, in 2004. During the cleanup effort, the EPA demolished more than 20 abandoned buildings and safely disposed of 377.5 tons of asbestos-containing materials, including insulation, pipe wrap, tiles and wallboard.

In 2009, the Air Force paid for the removal of 6,000 feet of above-ground asbestos-coated stem pipeline located at the former Chanute Air Force Base in Champaign County, Illinois. Chanute, which closed in 1993, has additional underground steam tunnels scheduled for demolition by 2015.

CDC Study Found Asbestos in:

  • Floor tile and vinyl flooring
  • Pipe insulation
  • Asbestos cement (transite) wall insulation
  • Ceiling tiles
  • Drywall
  • Stucco

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Asbestos on Planes

Plane Icon

Asbestos was used in the building and maintenance of aircraft, primarily to aid in the protection against fire and heat. Brakes, cockpit heating system, heat shields for engines, torque valves, gaskets, electrical wiring and insulation in the cargo bays also contain asbestos. Air Force mechanics were especially at risk for exposure, as they were more likely to inhale airborne asbestos dust and fibers through contact with engine and motor parts and other materials if they didn’t take necessary precautions.

Air Force Mechanics May Encounter Asbestos In:

  • Brakes
  • Systems used to heat cockpits
  • Engine heat shields
  • Torque valves
  • Gaskets
  • Insulation for electrical wiring
  • Insulation in cargo bays

It was so commonplace that enlisted men used it to solve mechanical problems. Technical Sergeant Tony Ventura, a WWII veteran, described one such situation where asbestos became a solution. He developed a methodology for repairing the long-standing problem of serious oil leaks in the B-29 bomber engine:

My suggestion was to wrap the 36 hose fittings on each engine with metallic inserted asbestos. This piece of asbestos would act as a heat baffle. The cost per cylinder would be about 50 cents. I experimented with one cylinder to see if these 50 cents would save a very expensive engine. The engineering officers and officials from Wright Engine Company were ecstatic when the cylinder was found to be bone dry after the test flight.

Tony Ventura
WWII Veteran Technical Sergeant

Manufacturers That Supplied Asbestos

Legal documents have revealed multiple asbestos manufacturers and companies that supplied asbestos-containing materials to the Air Force, including:

  • Johns Manville
  • Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corporation
  • Bendix Corp.
  • Raytheon
  • Fairchild-Republic Co.
  • General Electric Company
  • United Technologies Corporation
  • Cleaver Brooks Co.
  • Pratt & Whitney

Most of these companies produced asbestos-containing gaskets, insulation and other products found in Air Force aircraft. Others manufactured asbestos pipes, boilers and other construction materials commonly found in Air Force bases.

Air Force Veteran Sues for Asbestos Exposure

Law Icon

Leon Zbigniewicz, a former equipment mechanic in the Air Force from 1952 until 1972, filed a lawsuit in 2011 claiming his lung cancer was the direct result of exposure to asbestos while in the military. He also named former civilian employers in his suit. Zbigniewicz claimed the defendants were aware of the toxic effects of asbestos, but failed to exercise reasonable care for his safety.

Zbigniewicz suffered disability and disfigurement, amassed significant medical costs and suffered great physical and mental pain. He was unable to pursue his employment and lost "large sums of money that would have accrued to him."

Zbigniewicz sought a judgment of more than $100,000 in punitive and exemplary damages.

Air Force Reduces Risks of Exposure

In recent years, the Air Force has been proactive in reducing asbestos exposure. The Secretary of the Air Force commissioned a study that produced strict guidelines in dealing with asbestos throughout the branch of service. The Air Force distributed an asbestos management document in December 2014 that "establishes and assigns responsibilities to incorporate facility asbestos management principles and practices into all Air Force programs."

The Air Force became a separate military branch in 1947 when asbestos use in the U.S. was rapidly emerging. By the 1980s, the Air Force was replacing parts containing asbestos on aircraft with substitutes.

Additional Resources

  1. Department of the Air Force. (2014, December 24). Air Force Instruction 32-1052. Retrieved from http://www.wbdg.org/ccb/AF/AFI/afi_32_1052.pdf
  2. Siegel, L. (2004, April 5). Lowry AFB Compliance Order. Retrieved from http://www.cpeo.org/lists/military/2004/msg00237.html
  3. Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. (2003, October 30). DEQ Invites Public Comment on Cleanup Options at Former Burns Air Force Base. Retrieved from http://www.deq.state.or.us/news/prDisplay.asp?docID=1406
  4. Kacich, T. (2009, May 15). Air Force done with asbestos cleanup on ex-base pipes. Retrieved from http://www.news-gazette.com/news/local/2009-05-15/air-force-done-asbestos-cleanup-ex-base-pipes.html
  5. Ventura, A. (1998, May 31). The Unsung Plains of Kansas. Retrieved from http://346bg.com/memories/pratt.html
  6. Mlynarek, SP & Van Orden DR. (2012, November). Asbestos exposure from the overhaul of a Pratt & Whitney R2800 engine. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22867741
  7. Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. (2007, August). Burns Air Force Station. Retrieved from http://www.deq.state.or.us/Webdocs/Forms/Output/FPController.ashx?SourceId=1703&SourceIdType=11
  8. Supreme Court of North Dakota. (1997, January 16). Anderson v. A.P.I. Co. of Minnesota. Retrieved from http://www.leagle.com/decision/1997763559NW2d204_1763.xml/ANDERSON%20v.%20A.P.I.%20CO.%20OF%20MINNESOTA
  9. United States District Court, D. New Jersey. (2013, May 16). Scearce v. 3M Company. Retrieved http://www.leagle.com/decision/In%20FDCO%2020130520G57/Scearce%20v.%203M%20Company
  10. United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia, Charleston Division. (2009, April 20). Hamrick v. A & I Company. Retrieved from http://www.leagle.com/decision/In%20FDCO%2020090421885/HAMRICK%20v.%20A%20&%20I%20COMPANY
  11. Supreme Court of Delaware. (1984, December 13). Bendix Corporation v. Stagg. Retrieved from http://www.leagle.com/decision/19841636486A2d1150_11629/BENDIX%20CORPORATION%20v.%20STAGG
  12. United States District Court, S.D. Illinois. (1988, November 17). Fairchild Republic Co. v. U.S. Retrieved from http://www.leagle.com/decision/19881423712FSupp711_11307/FAIRCHILD%20REPUBLIC%20CO.%20v.%20U.S.
  13. United States District Court, S.D. Illinois. (1989, June 22). Niemann v. McDonnell Douglas Corp. Retrieved from http://www.leagle.com/decision/19891740721FSupp1019_11590/NIEMANN%20v.%20McDONNELL%20DOUGLAS%20CORP.
  14. United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit. (2015, July 7). Haas v. 3M Company. Retrieved from http://www.leagle.com/decision/In%20FCO%2020150707086/HAAS%20v.%203M%20COMPANY
  15. United States District Court, S.D. Illinois. (2013, November 25). Addison v. CBS Corp. Retrieved from http://www.leagle.com/decision/In%20FDCO%2020131126C21.xml/ADDISON%20v.%20CBS%20CORP.
  16. United States District Court, E.D. New York. (2013, January 28). Retrieved from http://www.leagle.com/decision/In%20FDCO%2020130201G90/IN%20RE%20ASBESTOS%20LITIGATION

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