United States military members faced hazards of all varieties during their service. But one major hazard they faced was something they literally couldn’t even see. Asbestos—a naturally-occurring mineral that has inherent fireproofing, heat-resistant, and flame-retardant properties—was applied frequently in many military buildings, machinery, ships, and vehicles.
Even after knowledge of the harmful effects of asbestos had become widespread, the mineral was still used in the applications.
Asbestos has been known to cause diseases like:
- Lung cancer
- Laryngeal cancer
- Bronchus cancer
- Cancers of the abdomen
- Pharynx cancer
- Pleural plaques
- Pleural effusion
Mesothelioma is one of the most notable asbestos-related diseases because its primary cause is exposure to asbestos. Mesothelioma is a type of cancer that occurs most commonly in the lining of the lungs (pleural mesothelioma) but can also appear in the lining of the abdomen (peritoneal mesothelioma) and heart (pericardial mesothelioma). Although veterans make up only 8% of the United States population, they account for around 30% of all cases of mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma often has a long latency period (between 10 and 50 years in most cases), meaning that someone exposed to asbestos 50 years ago may only now be developing the disease.
Clearly, veterans have been affected by mesothelioma at a disproportionate rate. For many veterans, exposure to asbestos was inescapable. It was theoretically baked into every aspect of their service. Members who served between the 1930s and 1980 were at the highest risk of asbestos exposure. Even so, it took decades for the military to remove asbestos from older buildings like barracks or mess halls on bases, and it could still be lurking in buildings today.
Active duty personnel may also be at risk of exposure if they are serving in countries where asbestos regulations are non-existent. Materials that exist in all branches of the military (Navy, Army, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard) and often contain asbestos include:
- Electrical wiring
- Brake pads and linings in vehicles
- Clutches and clutch linings in vehicles
- Roof shingles, tiles, and other roofing materials
- Insulation on equipment like boilers
When it comes to asbestos exposure, veterans have always been on the front lines. While it’s unfortunate, it is also important to remain vigilant, undergo health screenings, seek treatment, and understand your rights if you are a veteran.
Navy Veterans and Mesothelioma Risks
United States Navy veterans were at the highest risk of asbestos exposure compared to any other branch of the armed forces. This was largely because asbestos was used at very high volumes on marine vessels between the late 1930s and the 1970s. At the time, it was thought of as a great way to avoid catastrophic fires, but it ended up causing a different kind of catastrophe with the prevalence of asbestos-related illnesses later on.
Asbestos was first used in Navy vessels in 1938. In 1939, the Navy’s own Surgeon General issued a warning about the substance’s dangers and the possibility of developing asbestosis (which can be a precursor to mesothelioma). Still, asbestos production and use by the Navy only continued to grow. In general, asbestos use in American shipyards between 1930 and 1978 reached 25 million tons in weight, affecting around 4.5 million workers (many of whom were Navy personnel).
Navy personnel and other workers who actually built the ships were often at high risk of exposure.
Jobs that were at an especially high risk included:
- Insulation workers
Asbestos insulation was packed into every corner of a ship, including in gaskets and valves. Many metal girders and other materials were also coated with spray-on asbestos insulation products. So, it was not uncommon for asbestos exposure to occur in areas where shipmates would least expect it, like sleeping quarters, meeting rooms, or mess halls.
The most common locations to encounter asbestos on any Naval vessel were usually rooms with hot equipment or machinery such as:
- Engine rooms
- Boiler rooms
- Pump rooms
- Damage control rooms
- Propulsion rooms
Many of these rooms also had poor ventilation, meaning that airborne asbestos fibers were usually at a higher concentration. Boilermakers, engine mechanics, firemen, and others who frequently worked in these locations were at a very high risk of inhaling asbestos. Gunmen were also at a high risk because of the prevalence of asbestos in turrets.
It should be noted that asbestos materials were prevalent on virtually every new vessel produced by the United States Navy between 1938 and the late 1970s. Asbestos abatement efforts did not really conclude until the early 1990s, meaning that even Navy members who served on ships less than 30 years ago could have been exposed to asbestos.
Vessels that used asbestos included:
- Aircraft carriers
- Destroyer escorts
- Amphibious warships
- Escort carriers
- Torpedo boats
- Cargo ships
- Repair ships
If you are a Navy veteran, it’s important to understand that you were likely exposed to asbestos and are, thus, at risk of developing mesothelioma or another related illness. If you experience any of the symptoms of mesothelioma like heavy coughing, shortness of breath, or persistent chest pain, then it’s important to talk to a doctor and let them know of your possible exposure to asbestos.
Coast Guard Veterans
Again, current and former members of the United States Coast Guard face risks of asbestos exposure that are similar to those faced by members of the Navy and Marines. Ships and shipyards were rife with asbestos, and Coast Guard members were exposed both while serving on and during construction of those ships. The Coast Guard has about ten times fewer members than the Navy, meaning that the overall number of service members affected by asbestos is smaller.
But, that doesn’t mean Coast Guard members weren’t at a high risk. Ships on which Coast Guard veterans may have been exposed to asbestos include:
- Cutters (the most common type of Coast Guard vessel)
- Polar-class icebreakers
- Utility boats
- Seagoing buoy tenders
- Long-range interceptors
- Transportable port security boats
Cutters and polar-class icebreakers were usually the only ones with large boiler, and engine rooms were asbestos insulation was rampant. But, the other boats also used asbestos in piping, ducts, and other materials. The Coast Guard’s fleet contains some of the oldest ships in the United States military, meaning that asbestos exposure may still occur today.
Coast Guard veterans were also affected on land. The Curtis Bay Coast Guard Yard in Baltimore, Maryland was established in 1899 and originally served as an academy for Coast Guard members.
Over the years, the yard was the site of numerous marine activities, including:
- Shipbuilding (particularly during World War II)
- Vessel repair
- Buoy construction
- Other manufacturing endeavors
Because of the high rates of asbestos and other toxins, the Curtis Bay Coast Guard Yard was designated a Superfund site by the EPA in 2002. Studies have shown that civilian workers who were employed at the yard between 1950 and 1964 were nearly 5 times more likely to suffer from an asbestos-related disease later in life.
Studies have also shown that Coast Guard marine inspectors had higher rates of mortality than Coast Guard members with different occupations. Marine inspectors were required to inspect a variety of merchant ships and naval vessels, and they often had to enter boiler rooms, engine rooms, and pump rooms where asbestos concentrations were highest.
Army veterans did not spend a lot of time at sea, but they were still at risk of asbestos exposure to some degree. In the late 1990s, the United States Army overhauled or closed down 32 installations known to be contaminated with asbestos or other substances. Buildings and vehicles constructed by the Army often contained high quantities of asbestos.
Army veterans may have also worked in occupations during their service that exposed them further to asbestos, including:
- Electrical work
- General construction work
- Insulation work
- Demolition or renovation of old buildings
- Working on vehicles and especially parts like brake pads, gaskets, or clutches
In war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan, active duty Army personnel may be at risk for exposure still. Buildings in those locations may still use asbestos in high quantities. Demolishing those buildings or otherwise disturbing the asbestos in them can cause exposure.
Air Force Veterans
In addition to being found in Air Force bases and installations, asbestos could also be found in aircraft parts. Braking systems, torque valves, and engine insulators often contained asbestos to reduce heat and the risk of fire on airborne planes. Of course, mechanics and electricians who worked on aircraft were often at risk of asbestos exposure. Firefighters, welders, and boilermakers were also likely exposed to asbestos at some point. Firefighters would even wear protective gear that contained the substance.
A 2002 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that asbestos could still be found in many Air Force facilities. Asbestos composed roughly 10 to 25% of the wallboard in many Air Force bases. The EPA has helped rid Air Force bases of the mineral, and it has also cleaned up former Air Force sites. One example is the Burns Air Force Station in Oregon where the EPA disposed of over 375 tons of asbestos products and materials safely.
Legal Recourse for Veterans
It is clear that asbestos in the military was rampant, and the rates of veterans with mesothelioma are high because of that. But, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has set up a system that allows former military members to make disability benefits claims. If you have developed an asbestos-related illness that occurred as a result of your duty in the Armed Forces, then you may be entitled to compensation.
Not everyone qualifies for VA disability compensation, however. Some eligibility requirements include:
- Having not been discharged dishonorably
- Having been exposed to asbestos during their service in any branch of the military
- Having developed a disease as a result of that exposure
- Having official medical documentation of a diagnosis
In order to file a claim, you will need to compile evidence that verifies that you were exposed to asbestos during your service. This usually includes documentation that identifies where you were stationed, what vessels you served on (if any), and what occupations you held during your service.
After a claim is submitted, the VA may ask for additional details and evidence to further corroborate your claim. If you work with a mesothelioma lawyer, you can likely send a “Fully Developed Claim.” These claims contain all necessary information, will not be sent back for further documentation, and can expedite the process significantly.
VA disability benefits are typically paid out on a monthly basis. For mesothelioma patients, VA claims usually yield 100% of the requested benefits, which can be as high as $3,000 per month or more. Benefits can also be paid to family members of a veteran who passed as a result of mesothelioma or another disease that was incurred during their service.
It should be noted, that it is illegal to charge money for providing assistance with a VA benefits claim. It is also possible to pursue other legal options like lawsuits, asbestos trust funds, or workers’ compensation if specific asbestos product manufacturers can be identified or if further asbestos exposure occurred during a veteran’s civilian work.
Clearly, when it comes to asbestos exposure, veterans got the short end of the stick. But, it’s not too late to receive some type of compensation for your suffering.