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.
To help asses risk, Air Force veterans should learn about possible methods of exposure in the Air Force.
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.
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:
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.
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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.
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.
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
Legal documents have revealed multiple asbestos manufacturers and companies that supplied asbestos-containing materials to the Air Force, including:
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.
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.
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.
Former U.S. Army Capt. Aaron Munz is the director of the Veterans Department at The Mesothelioma Center, and he is a VA-accredited Claims Agent. He received the Bronze Star in 2004 during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Munz has intimate knowledge of how veterans were exposed to asbestos because he served under similar conditions.
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