Aircraft Carriers and Asbestos

Aircraft have regularly flown from U.S. Navy ships since the early years of the 20th century. Maritime and aeronautical technology rapidly evolved so that by the time World War II began, aircraft carriers played a crucial role in the nation’s naval operations. These vessels became enormous virtual floating bases with ever-increasing amounts of aircraft onboard. The vast size of the carriers and their naval functions meant that up to 5,000 sailors, pilots, and officers served on these vessels.

U.S. Navy aircraft carriers, like other military vessels, contained asbestos components or had products that were made with asbestos onboard. As a consequence, many crew members and officers who served aboard aircraft carriers have developed mesothelioma and other respiratory ailments because they were exposed to asbestos during their service. Mesothelioma is a deadly cancer whose symptoms can take up to 50 years to appear.

Some Types of Aircraft Carriers

U.S. Navy aircraft carriers are designated as the CV series, part of the cruiser (C) group of designations according to the Naval History and Heritage Command. During and after World War II, this class of ship came to include the following:

  • CVA (attack aircraft carrier)
  • CVAN (nuclear-powered attack aircraft carrier)
  • CVB (large aircraft carrier)
  • CVL (small aircraft carrier)
  • CVN (nuclear-powered aircraft carrier)
  • CVS (anti-submarine warfare support aircraft carrier)
  • CVT (training aircraft carrier)

Aircraft carriers that worked protecting convoys were called aircraft escort vessels (AVG). Over time, these ships were designated auxiliary aircraft carriers (ACV), which eventually changed to escort aircraft carriers (CVE).

Today, the fleet’s super carriers carry the designation CVN for aircraft carriers that are nuclear powered.

Asbestos Exposure on Aircraft Carriers

Aircraft carriers relied on asbestos due to the mineral’s heat resistance, insulation, and fireproofing capabilities. When on the vast reaches of the open ocean, a fire that isn’t quickly extinguished can destroy an entire vessel and crew. After a devastating 1934 fire aboard a passenger liner, the SS Moro Castle, Congress passed regulations that required the use of fire-retardant materials in shipbuilding.

To promote shipboard safety, every carrier built before 1980 contained asbestos. Some sections of the ship had greater concentrations of asbestos than others—for instance, a carrier’s massive engine room and boiler rooms were full of asbestos.

The mineral insulated hot pipes, flammable fixtures, and electrical systems. Also, many types of heavy equipment used asbestos brake pads and other asbestos components. It also found its way into ceiling tiles and fire-resistant cloths, blankets, and clothing.

Navigation rooms, sleeping quarters, and mess halls also often used materials that contained asbestos.

Personnel at Risk

U.S. Navy veterans have the highest incidence of asbestos-related diseases. In general, personnel who served on ships whose keels were laid before 1983 were likely exposed to asbestos.

However, some jobs onboard a carrier were more likely to lead to asbestos exposure than others. The highest-risk occupations included boiler men, engine mechanics, firemen, gunners, pipefitters, and welders.

By the late 1970s, the U.S. military stopped using asbestos in aircraft carriers as the serious health hazards associated with asbestos exposure became known to the public. However, some asbestos-containing products were still approved for onboard use.

Unfortunately, asbestos fibers are very small. Even after the removal of the asbestos, it’s likely that some areas in the ship still carried traces of the mineral in corners and crevices or inside machinery.

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