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Wednesday, February 23, 2011
Asbestos in the Aviation Industry
The commercial airline industry began to grow in the early decades of the twentieth century. After both world wars, an influx of trained pilots into civilian life meant that airlines could expand beyond the delivery of mail and into the transportation of passengers. Newer, larger airplanes needed to be constructed to hold these passengers, and innovative designs such as the Boeing 247 and Douglas DC-3 in the 1930s allowed the industry to profit, even as the Great Depression was ravaging the United States.
However, around this time, another innovation was taking off – asbestos. Though this mineral had been known for its strength and heat-resistant qualities for some time, it was not until the early to mid-twentieth century that it was mined in mass quantities and used in everything from insulation to floor tiles to brake pads. Though it was the shipbuilding industry that made the most extensive use of asbestos, it could be found in the engines, valves, and gaskets of airplanes, as well – anywhere that would be subjected to extreme temperatures. Asbestos did its job as an insulator very well, but there were hidden costs to the use of the material that would not be revealed for several more decades.
When asbestos is combined with other materials, it is generally not harmful. However, the stress put on the materials by those valves and gaskets eventually damages them and wears them down, sending tiny, needle-like fibers into the air. Once breathed in, those fibers can lodge in the lungs and other body tissues and cause serious health problems such as symptoms of mesothelioma, an aggressive and usually fatal cancer of the lining of the chest and abdomen. Pilots in the U.S. military are particularly at risk, since they may have come into further contact with asbestos on aircraft carriers or in barracks. Mesothelioma symptoms can take between 20 and 50 years to surface after asbestos exposure, so many pilots and mechanics who were routinely exposed to asbestos during World War II, Korea, and Vietnam are only now realizing that they are sick.
The use of asbestos is a sad chapter in the history of the American aviation industry. Mesothelioma life expectancy is only around 10% five years after diagnosis, and many good pilots and mechanics have succumbed to this terrible disease. However, alternative materials are now used in place of asbestos, helping to ensure the health and safety of those who work in the airline industry.
Article contributed by Eric Stevenson