Throughout the 20th century, all branches of the military used asbestos. These decades of use put veterans and other servicemen and women at risk of exposure. The military used asbestos for its durability in the high-heat environments of buildings, planes and ships. The mineral was also used for structural insulation at various military bases and jobsites. Many of these jobsites still have asbestos products in their structures today. As a result, veterans and service members continue to face asbestos exposure and account for about one-third of mesothelioma diagnoses today.
Air Force Bases
The heavy use of asbestos in all branches of the military, including the Air Force, has led to high cancer risk among veterans. Asbestos was often used in the construction of buildings at Air Force bases. Air Force planes also often contained asbestos for heat control and fireproofing. Families of servicemen and women are also at risk if they lived on base. Loved ones could be exposed to asbestos fibers directly or from secondary exposure. For example, workers could bring home contaminated clothing, causing exposure.
Many Navy veterans and civilian workers were exposed to asbestos from ships. All types of Navy and public vessels built before 1980 can be assumed to have contained asbestos somewhere in their construction. Many commercial and naval vessels used the mineral in boiler rooms, pipe insulation and other insulation purposes. Boiler room insulation alone contained about 15% asbestos. Insulation in boiler rooms was easily broken down due to frequent boiler repairs. This means millions of veterans and other ship workers may have been exposed to asbestos fibers while onboard the ships.
Shipyard workers are often exposed to asbestos when doing maintenance work or retiring old ships that used asbestos materials. As a result of tight quarters on ships, shipyard workers were often at risk of exposure to concentrated asbestos dust in the air. For example, boilers and insulation on ships often contained asbestos. Maintenance was frequently done in small rooms with poor ventilation. As a result, those completing the work and any bystanders risked asbestos exposure.
02. Commercial and Industrial
Commercial and Industrial Sites
Before 1980, asbestos was used at many industrial jobsites due to its chemical- and heat-resistant properties. Asbestos could be found almost anywhere at these jobsites, such as in cement, insulation, gaskets and protective clothing. Workers who were exposed to asbestos at commercial and industrial jobsites may develop mesothelioma cancer years later.
Aluminum plant workers are often exposed to asbestos from broken-down structural materials. Workers may also be exposed to asbestos-containing protective gear used to withstand chemical reactions. The non-corrosive properties of asbestos made it ideal for aluminum smelting. However, dangerous asbestos fibers put many of the 2.2 million people who work in the metal industry at risk of developing serious health problems.
Today, asbestos can be found in insulation and cement materials at brewing companies. In years past, it was used in combination with paper to filter beer, wine and other alcohol. The brewing industry is growing rapidly. More than 100 breweries still have asbestos at their jobsites. As a result, there is a still risk of exposure for brewery workers and visitors.
Chemical plant workers often wore asbestos-containing protective clothing. This could help prevent chemical burns or other injuries. Chrysotile asbestos was most often found in petrochemical industries, where chemical reactions happened frequently. Today, some chemical plants may still contain asbestos materials, such as insulation and other structural materials. Inhaling the chrysotile asbestos fibers from these uses can lead to mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases.
Building materials on oil refinery jobsites contain asbestos for insulation and durability purposes. Old gaskets may also contain asbestos. Gaskets contained asbestos because the mineral does not break down as easily as other materials. Although asbestos-containing gaskets stopped being produced in 1980, old machinery and pipes may still have asbestos gaskets and other asbestos materials. As a result, past uses of asbestos leave oil refinery workers at risk of being exposed to hazardous asbestos fibers.
High-heat environments such as power plants were constructed with asbestos due to the mineral’s ability to resist heat and electricity. Asbestos was frequently used in insulation. The mineral could also be found in protective clothing. Asbestos in clothing allowed workers to handle hot machinery without fear of burning or catching fire. More than 150 plants in the United States still have harmful asbestos materials on site. Exposure to asbestos materials at power plants can cause mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases.
Boilers, ovens, steel molds and other steel mill equipment used asbestos. The mineral made products lightweight and resistant to high temperatures. Steel mill workers also wore protective clothing made with asbestos to protect against hot steel and other high-heat materials. Wear and tear to asbestos clothing and materials can lead to asbestos dust. Workers who inhale asbestos dust may develop mesothelioma, asbestosis and other diseases.
03. Other Sites
Asbestos was commonly found at many jobsites that required materials to withstand heat and chemical reactions. However, it could also be found in vehicles, houses and schools built before 1980. Mechanics, construction workers and teachers are among those who may experience occupational asbestos exposure at these sites. Homeowners and the general public may also be exposed from renovations at home, working on their vehicles or from other asbestos-containing buildings.
Old car parts such as brakes, clutches and gaskets may contain asbestos fibers to prevent heat transfer and insulate parts. The mineral was also used in paint and fiberglass due to its lightweight and heat-resistant properties. Older vehicles may still have lingering asbestos in their parts. Past asbestos use creates asbestos exposure risk for drivers, mechanics, technicians and car manufacturers when cleaning or repairing an old automobile.
Asbestos was heavily used in the construction industry, putting homeowners at risk of exposure. Chrysotile asbestos was often used in the construction materials of homes built before 1980. The mineral was frequently used in tiles, insulation, roofing and other materials in older homes. As a result, homeowners may still be at risk of asbestos exposure when renovating, making repairs on their homes or from general wear and tear as the home ages.
Crocidolite asbestos, also known as blue asbestos, could be found in tiles, cement and insulation of school buildings. The fibers of blue asbestos are extremely fine and particularly easy to inhale. As a result, students, teachers and other school staff in more than 40,000 old school buildings may still be at risk of asbestos exposure today.
04. Preventing Exposure
Preventing Asbestos Exposure at Jobsites
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there is no safe level of asbestos exposure. Although the mineral is a known carcinogen, it is still not completely banned in the United States. Even with a complete asbestos ban, old uses in jobsites, homes and other buildings would continue to put the public at risk.
To protect workers, agencies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) help set laws and regulations to:
- Limit health hazards
- Mitigate the risk of exposure to asbestos
- Ensure individuals work in safe environments with the necessary protective equipment
If you or a loved one has worked at one of the jobsites mentioned, speak with a doctor about potential asbestos exposure and related health risks. If diagnosed early, patients may have longer life expectancies and better quality of life than those diagnosed in the final stages of mesothelioma.