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Asbestos Exposure on Aircraft Carriers

The Navy’s use of asbestos in all of its vessels, including aircraft carriers, really started in the 1930s as a result of weight limitations for ships that were imposed by international treaties. At that time, the standard pipe insulation used aboard naval vessels was magnesia and magnesium oxide, which weighed 16 pounds per foot and had a temperature limit of 500 degrees Fahrenheit. As soon as naval architects found that insulation made from amosite asbestos weighed 14 pounds per foot and had a temperature limit of 750 degrees Fahrenheit, it became the pipe covering of choice. In addition to the added heat protection provided by the amosite insulation, the weight saving allowed these vessels to carry more equipment like guns and munitions, and to save fuel.

However, pipe insulation was only one of the many uses the Navy found for asbestos. There were over 300 asbestos-containing products employed in engine and boiler rooms, navigation rooms, mess halls and sleeping quarters. Any areas below deck that might be at a high risk for fire probably contained some sort of asbestos product. In addition, gaskets, valves, cables, cements and adhesives that were used in equipment that might be a fire safety hazard also contained asbestos.

Some Asbestos Product Applications Posed More Danger than Others

According to Naval Sea Systems Command Instruction 5100.2A, not every asbestos-containing product used by the Navy automatically created a health risk for those exposed to it. The memo specifically distinguishes between products like valve packing in which the asbestos fibers are tightly bound and thermal insulation, which have loosely bound asbestos fibers. A significant amount of the loosely bound fibers would be released into the air during “fabrication, installation, use or removal”. However, this problem was not an issue with products that had tightly bound fibers because whatever was released did not exceed the Navy Medical Surveillance Action Level.

Some Asbestos Exposures were Specific to Air Craft Carriers

Although Navy personnel aboard air craft carriers faced the same general risks for asbestos exposure as those on other types of Navy vessels, there were some added incidents for exposure.

Asbestos was sprayed on deckheads, bulkheads, and below the flight decks to prevent friction fires. Also, during combat, the firing of guns aboard the aircraft would release asbestos particles into the air.

Aircraft Mechanics Aboard Carriers had Even Greater Exposure

By far the greatest danger from asbestos exposure was faced by air craft mechanics aboard the carriers. Airplane brakes were lined with asbestos. Whenever a plane braked, the friction caused by the brakes rubbing against the lining would create asbestos dust. This dust was released into the surrounding air and inhaled when these mechanics did any kind of brake repair.

Also, these planes were built with epoxies and glues that contained asbestos as a strengthening agent. Whenever mechanics removed any parts covered in these epoxies, it released significant quantities of asbestos fibers into the air which they inhaled.

Gulf War Veterans May Have Been Exposed

Although the Navy banned the use of asbestos-containing products in its vessels in the mid-1970s, the danger for exposure is still a problem.

During the Gulf War, continued aerial bombing made it necessary to use naval aircraft carriers. This strategy was employed most frequently during the beginning stages of the war. These older vessels may have been built with asbestos-containing materials, which would have caused the personnel aboard them to become exposed.

Aircraft Carriers Where Asbestos Exposure is a Risk

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