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Air Force veterans served this country and many were harmed as a result, not just in combat, but because of a material used extensively in ships, aircraft, vehicles, and military bases: asbestos. Over several decades, the U.S. Military used asbestos in multiple locations, most heavily in Navy ships, but also in other areas where Air Force members worked and served.

Asbestos has many useful properties, which explains why it was used so extensively, but it is also harmful to people how inhale or ingest it. The fibers cause damage in the body over decades and can lead to illnesses like asbestosis, lung cancer, and the particularly deadly type of cancer called mesothelioma. Too many veterans, from all branches of the military, have developed these deadly illnesses as a result of serving.

Asbestos Use in the Military

Asbestos has been used extensively throughout the military, on ships, on bases, in shipyard, on aircraft, and in all types of vehicles. Use peaked in the 1940s when many ships were constructed for World War II and asbestos was an inexpensive and abundant material that could be used for multiple purposes. Since regulations were placed on asbestos in the 1970s it has not been used as much, but veterans who were exposed up to that point in time are still being diagnosed with mesothelioma and other illnesses.

The use of asbestos was so prevalent in the Air Force and other parts of the military not only because it was cheap and abundant, but also because of its unique properties. Asbestos can be added to materials to make them stronger, to insulate from heat, fire, and electricity, and to resist chemical corrosion. Originally, and ironically, asbestos was used so often in the military to protect service members. It was used extensively in fireproofing, for instance, but also as insulation and to strengthen materials.

Asbestos on Aircraft

U.S. Air Force service members worked in and around aircraft and because of that work many were exposed to asbestos. Military aircraft contained asbestos in the brakes, in valves and gaskets, in fireproofing and heat shields, and in various engine parts. Those Air Force members most at risk for being exposed to asbestos were those that worked on the aircraft. Mechanics and electricians handled all the components with asbestos without knowing the risks. They disturbed the asbestos and caused fibers to become airborne. Welders were also at risk because they wore asbestos-containing protective gear like gloves.

Although the Air Force is most associated with aircraft, veterans from this branch also worked with and around military vehicles. Transport vehicles, armored vehicles, and other types of vehicles contained as much asbestos as aircraft, so mechanics and other specialists that worked on vehicles in the Air Force were at risk for exposure. By handling the parts they may have inhaled fibers of asbestos.

Asbestos Exposure on Bases

Air Force bases were constructed using asbestos as well. These bases had asbestos, and still do in some instances to this day, in flooring tiles, vinyl, ceiling tiles, roofing materials, insulation, cement walls, drywall, and other materials. Many military bases around the country, including Air Force bases, have been found to have asbestos contamination that required abatement and removal, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Some sites were so contaminated that they were even listed as Superfund sites.

Asbestos on Air Force bases continues to be a problem now; even decades after the harmful effects of exposure were discovered. One example is the former Lowry Air Force Base in Colorado. The state’s Department of Health issued an order for the Air Force to clean up its contaminated former site. The department claimed that the Air Force left 22 acres of soil contaminated with asbestos. Development on that land would not be able to proceed until the asbestos is removed. Construction would likely make fibers go airborne and put people at risk of exposure.

Asbestos-Related Illnesses

Air Force veterans and others who were exposed to asbestos have been put at risk for developing one of several possible illnesses. The conditions associated with asbestos exposure have a long latency period so many veterans do not realize they are sick until they are in their 70s or 80s. They may then be diagnosed with asbestosis, which is a condition of the lungs that is painful and incurable, but not deadly. They may also be diagnosed with lung cancer, which is typically deadly, depending on the stage when it is diagnosed.

The worst diagnosis to get after years of asbestos exposure is mesothelioma. This is a type of cancer that results from damage to the pleura of the lungs because of damage caused by asbestos fibers. The pleural tissue lines the lungs and cancer of this type is extremely rare. It is painful, uncomfortable, and usually has a very poor prognosis and low survival rates. Treating mesothelioma is difficult. It is nearly impossible to cure.

Resources for Air Force Veterans

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) provides free resources and services for all veterans, including those that served in the Air Force. Among those resources are various types of compensation for developing mesothelioma as a result of asbestos exposure during service. To get disability and other types of compensation veterans must file a claim and show that the illness is directly a result of asbestos used during service in the military. The VA has free resources and information to help veterans file a claim and seek compensation for themselves or their families.

Another potential resource and avenue for seeking compensation for Air Force veterans is a lawsuit. Air Force veterans and others have filed lawsuits that claim those responsible for their exposure to asbestos knew there were risks associated with the material. Many of these lawsuits have been against manufacturers that made materials containing asbestos, which were then used in the military. Some cases are successful, while others are not, but suing the companies that put them at risk is one avenue for seeking compensation for Air Force veterans.

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