History of Asbestos Usage in the Military

For centuries, people have used asbestos in numerous ways. As the Industrial Revolution forever reshaped many industries, it also changed the use of asbestos. In the 1800s there was a large growth in the use of asbestos throughout a multitude of products. Because it asbestos was a highly effective insulator, it was used as a fireproofing agent. The toxic mineral was so widely praised that the U.S. military ordered its usage in many facilities and vehicles.

Branches of Service

The military began its use of asbestos products on Navy ships during World War II. From the 1930s to the 1970s, the military used several thousand tons of the mineral in all types of construction, maintenance, and repair. In addition, many types of transportation, including ships, tanks, helicopters, planes, and other vehicles contained asbestos. Both the Army and the Air Force used asbestos in electric insulation and in brakes and clutch pads on vehicles. Housing and other buildings on military bases were constantly being equipped with asbestos containing products from insulation to plumbing equipment.

Asbestos in Ships

The Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard found even more uses for asbestos. The Navy developed more than 300 products containing asbestos for use both in ships and in shipyards, and mandated its use on all new vessels beginning in 1939.

In that same year, the Navy Surgeon General publicly acknowledged the negative effects of that asbestos exposure has on the body. In a report on health conditions at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the Surgeon General showed that extensive asbestos exposure led to asbestosis, a possibly fatal respiratory disease, as well as the potential to lead to the aggressive cancer mesothelioma. Despite this knowledge, the military continued to commonly use asbestos.

In the 1970s, the military began to discontinue the use asbestos-containing products, as the public became more aware of the mineral’s negative effects. Moderate usage continued through the 1980s, and to a greatly reduced degree, continues today. Many people believe that asbestos use was banned by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1989. However, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the EPA’s attempted ban on asbestos in 1991, and its use is still legal in certain products.