Asbestos Exposure Risks in Air Force Occupations

Almost all Air Force veterans have risked some level of asbestos exposure because of how much the U.S. military relied on asbestos products until the 1980s. But certain duties put service members in regular contact with asbestos materials, performing work that caused toxic dust to go airborne.

Inhaling microscopic asbestos dust is the main cause of mesothelioma. This cancer takes decades to develop after asbestos exposure, but it progresses rapidly once symptoms appear.

Air Force veterans and civilian contractors who worked in the following roles should talk to their doctor about cancer screening and ensure their potential asbestos exposure history is noted in their medical records.

Aircraft Mechanics, Electricians and Vehicle Technicians

For much of the 20th century, military aircraft and other vehicles were constructed with asbestos-containing parts resistant to heat and corrosion. As a result, Air Force mechanics, electricians and vehicle technicians were routinely exposed to toxic asbestos dust during maintenance and repair work.

Aircraft Parts Typically Manufactured with Asbestos

  • Brake pads and linings
  • Cockpit heating equipment
  • Electrical wiring insulation
  • Engine heat shields
  • Fuselage and cargo bay insulation
  • Gaskets and torque valves

Military firefighters were doubly at risk of asbestos exposure — first from the asbestos released by the wreckage of destroyed vehicles and munitions, and second from the asbestos cloth used to make their firefighting gear. Firefighters who served in the U.S. Marines faced an additional risk of exposure to other asbestos products that were widely used throughout vessels such as spray-on insulation in engine rooms.

In the 1980s, the Air Force phased out asbestos-containing parts and equipment, switching to asbestos-free substitutes.

Boiler Workers, Welders and Construction Workers

Aside from aircraft parts, the Air Force had many mundane uses for asbestos as well. Service members involved in the building, maintenance or demolition of Air Force installations came into contact with a variety of asbestos-containing construction materials. Many of these same asbestos products were used throughout U.S. Navy vessels and in shipyards, leading to many Navy veterans developing mesothelioma.

In 2002, the Centers for Disease Control conducted a study of on-base housing at the long-shuttered Burns Air Force Station in Oregon.

The researchers confirmed the presence of asbestos in products such as:

  • Ceiling tiles
  • Drywall
  • Floor tiles and vinyl flooring
  • Pipe insulation
  • Wall insulation
  • Wallboard

Air Force Bases at Risk

Chanute Air Force Base

As another example, asbestos exposure remained a risk throughout the 640 acres of Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, Illinois, long after the base ceased military operations in 1993.

In 2009, the Air Force had to pay to remove 6,000 feet of asbestos-covered steam pipeline at Chanute. The full abatement of the base’s steam tunnel vaults and steam plant took until 2014.

At the end of 2014, the Secretary of the Air Force distributed an asbestos management document with strict safety requirements for dealing with asbestos. The Air Force has made valuable reforms, but the legacy of its asbestos use will haunt military families for many years to come.

Kadena Air Base

In 2016, the Asia-Pacific Journal reported on the extensive history of toxic exposure hazards, including asbestos, at the largest U.S. Air Force installation in Asia.

Lax safety standards at Kadena Air Base endangered service members, military dependents and civilian contractors for decades — a representative case for military bases in general.

Asbestos was used in every branch of the military to construct bases. Many U.S. Army bases in the U.S. have had to deal with asbestos removal projects.

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Benefits for Air Force Veterans with Pleural Mesothelioma

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs considers pleural mesothelioma a service-connected illness if at least half an Air Force veteran’s asbestos exposure happened on active duty. This makes the veteran eligible for special VA benefits such as free mesothelioma treatment and disability compensation.

The VA considers pleural mesothelioma 100% disabling, allowing the maximum level of monthly disability compensation for veterans as well as dependency and indemnity compensation for surviving spouses.

A VA claim for pleural mesothelioma can be rejected if it does not include enough documentation of military asbestos exposure.

The VA may assume most of the veteran’s asbestos exposure took place during their civilian career outside the military. If this is true, the veteran will not be eligible for disability compensation, but they may still be eligible for low-cost VA health care and legal compensation from the private sector.

Legal Options for Air Force Veterans

Military families impacted by a mesothelioma diagnosis may also have legal options for obtaining compensation from the companies that supplied asbestos products to the Air Force. A qualified mesothelioma lawyer can help walk you through the process.

Legal compensation from a lawsuit or an asbestos trust fund claim can help with expenses not covered by VA benefits, especially if a veteran’s mesothelioma diagnosis is not recognized as service-connected.