The U.S. Air Force originated from the U.S. Army Signal Corps Aeronautical Division in 1907 and became its own branch of the military in September 1947 — a time when the use of asbestos in the U.S. was at its highest. Exposure to the dangerous mineral put Air Force veterans at risk for pleural mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases.
Asbestos was valued for its resistance to heat and chemical damage, flexibility, strength and affordability. It was used for much of the 20th century in home and commercial construction and in many occupations, most notably as a form of insulation.
In the past, the military used asbestos in each of its branches – on ships, vehicles and in buildings on base – putting nearly all members of the armed forces at risk of exposure.
Within the Air Force, asbestos exposure occurred in a variety of ways. Air Force bases were likely built with many asbestos-containing materials, including insulation, floor and ceiling tiles, walls and shingles. Asbestos was commonly used to insulate hot water pipes. Miscellaneous paints, cements and joining compounds containing asbestos may have also been used.
A number of Air Force bases across the nation relied heavily on asbestos materials and exposed veterans regularly, including Colorado’s Buckley AFB and Lowry AFB; Ellsworth AFB in South Dakota; Tinker AFB in Oklahoma; and the former Williams AFB in Arizona.
The former Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, Illinois, also made extensive use of asbestos. The base ceased all military operations in 1993, but asbestos-laden products are still very much present throughout its 640 acres.
In its planes, the Air Force likely used asbestos in the brakes, engine heat shields, parts to heat cockpits, torque valves and gaskets, and valves incorporated in the engines. Any mechanic who repaired or replaced these products likely was exposed to asbestos.
Members of the military were also exposed while they slept. In 2002, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) conducted a study of on-base housing at the long-shuttered Burns Air Force Station in Oregon and confirmed the presence of asbestos in wall insulation, ceiling tiles, drywall, floor tile and vinyl flooring, pipe insulation and wallboard.
After the detrimental health effects of asbestos became widely known, the Air Force actively reduced its use of the toxic mineral, but exposure decades ago put an untold number of veterans at risk.
In 2009, the Air Force paid to remove 6,000 feet of above-ground asbestos-covered steam pipeline in Chanute AFB, and the abatement and demolition of the base's steam tunnel vaults and steam plant was completed in 2014.
Veterans who were exposed to asbestos should receive annual medical exams to check for any pleural mesothelioma symptoms.
Air Force veterans who suffer from an asbestos-related illness are eligible for a wide variety of benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. These benefits vary based on the condition, the type of disability and the level of asbestos exposure during their service.
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