Veterans are the most at-risk group for developing mesothelioma. They account for 30% of all mesothelioma patients, but only 8% of the entire population. The military’s widespread use of asbestos from the 1930s to the 1970s exposed veterans to large amounts of asbestos containing materials.
Information about service-connected exposure to asbestos is essential for veterans who served in all branches of the military. Affected veterans are entitled to compensation and benefits from the Veterans Administration.
Asbestos Use in the Military
Asbestos is a natural mineral used in a wide variety of commercial and industrial applications. It is recognized as the primary cause of mesothelioma, an aggressive, rare form of cancer. Both civilian industry and the military valued it for its fire resistance, versatility, and cost-effectiveness.
While mesothelioma is rare, the use of asbestos containing materials in the military was not. The military used asbestos in a variety of applications and settings from World War II until the Vietnam War.
All branches of the military used it in the walls and ceilings of bases, in the boiler rooms and sleeping quarters of vessels, and in automobile parts. Although the military phased out the use of asbestos by the 1970s, countless veterans had already endured dangerous levels of exposure.
At Risk Veterans
There are some branches of the military, like the Navy, that endured more exposure than others. Even so, all veterans should understand how they may have come into contact with asbestos during active duty.
Since its founding, the Navy has regarded fire at sea as one of the greatest hazards to the safety of its servicemen. It took far-reaching measures at the outbreak of World War II to reduce as much fire damage as possible. This concern resulted in the use of asbestos in almost every aspect of the construction of its expanding fleet.
The Navy used asbestos on virtually every ship and vehicle within the branch. It could be found in boiler rooms, storage rooms, sleeping quarters, and the dining halls of large and small ships alike.The largest battleships and the smallest patrol crafts all contained the cancer causing mineral in some form.
The Navy’s use of asbestos was not just confined to ships and submarines. Land bases and housing units built near bases were often constructed with asbestos containing materials.
The War Related Illness and Injury Center identified the following at-risk Navy servicemen:
- Navy servicemen who served on ships constructed before before 1983
- Navy servicemen who worked in shipyards from the 1930s to the 1990s
- Navy personnel who worked below deck before the early 1990s. Asbestos was often used below deck where cramped quarters lacked proper ventilation
- Many Navy personnel worked without respiratory protection in engine rooms. They often removed damaged asbestos pipe covering, known as lagging, and re-wrapped the pipes with asbestos paste
Many Navy personnel came into contact with asbestos on a daily basis while at work. Specific Navy occupations linked to asbestos exposure include:
- Boiler Technicians
- Engine Mechanic
- Hull Technician
- Gunner’s Mate
Veterans of the U.S. Army are also at risk of developing mesothelioma from service-related asbestos exposure.
The Army valued asbestos for its fire-resistant and insulative properties. It was used throughout bases in sleeping areas and mess halls. It could be found in cement foundations, caulking, flooring, roofing, and in the plumbing system.
Everyday contact with helicopters, tanks, and transport vehicles put army veterans at risk. These vehicles often contained fire-resistant parts coated with asbestos. Service mechanics often came into close contact with asbestos-containing parts during routine maintenance.
In fact, the dangerous mineral was identified as major contaminant during a large-scale clean up effort carried out by the Army in the 1990s. The total cleanup cost for the 32 closed or realigned Army installations amounted to one billion dollars.
Specific Army occupations linked to asbestos exposure include:
- Vehicle Mechanics
- Aircraft and maintenance technicians
Air Force veterans were exposed to asbestos in bases, barracks and transport vehicles. Many airplane components also contained asbestos. Due to its heat-resistant, fireproofing characteristics, the Air Force used the asbestos in a variety of applications:
- Cockpit heating system
- Heat shields for engines
- Wiring insulation
- Insulation for cargo bays
- Cooling systems
Various on-base transport vehicles also contained asbestos. Air Force mechanics often came into close contact with these parts while they repaired vehicles.
Specific Air Force occupations linked to asbestos exposure include:
- Vehicle Mechanics
- Aircraft and maintenance technicians
- Environmental support specialist
Marine Corps veterans were also put at risk of asbestos exposure. Most land installations were built with asbestos-containing products. The floor and ceiling tiles of common rooms and mess halls used asbestos. Insulation made with asbestos lined the walls of sleeping quarters.
The exposure risk for Marine veterans did not end on land. Marines were often deployed alongside Navy servicemen in cramped boats with poor ventilation. Their duties required them to frequent shipyards where the maintenance of Navy vessels occurred. These ships contained large amounts of asbestos. Routine maintenance may have released invisible asbestos particles into the air.
A recent study acknowledged the presence of asbestos in the older buildings at Parris Island. Though most of the asbestos has already been removed, countless recruits may already have been exposed to asbestos during boot camp.
Recent Exposure: Veterans of the more recent wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and the surrounding Middle Eastern region are also at risk. The destruction of older buildings may have released asbestos fibers into the air, exposing soldiers to the cancer causing mineral. Veterans of these wars are encouraged to seek more information about the asbestos and its link to mesothelioma.
Many veterans came into direct contact with asbestos containing materials during their service. Veterans who worked in the repair and manufacturing sectors run the highest risk.
According to the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs, veterans who worked in the following occupations risked exposure to asbestos:
- Shipyard work
- Insulation work
- Demolition of old buildings
- Carpentry and construction
- Manufacturing and installation of flooring, roofing, cement sheet, and pipe products
Overseas Deployment and Asbestos
The deployment of troops on a global scale placed service men and women in foreign countries where asbestos use was prevalent. Damaged buildings often released deadly asbestos particles into the air. Veterans were also exposed to asbestos in overseas housing where they spent the majority of their time sleeping and eating.
World War II (1939 – 1945)
The military expanded its use of asbestos at the beginning of the World War II. Most of this expansion occurred in the Navy. Ships were outfitted with asbestos-containing materials to mitigate fire damage at sea.
Korean War (1950 – 1953)
The Korean War saw the reuse of vehicles, ships and equipment manufactured during World War II. These vehicles, ships, and equipment aged or were damaged by use. Parts containing asbestos contaminated materials more easily released undetectable asbestos fibers into the air.
Vietnam War (1959 – 1975)
America’s use of asbestos peaked during the Vietnam War. Veterans were exposed in transport ships, on bases, and in vehicles. Towards the end of the war many facilities underwent haphazard asbestos removal. Neither abatement workers nor soldiers took adequate precautions and increased their risk of exposure.
Well-known Vietnam veterans who have died from mesothelioma include: Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Jr., U.S. Chief of Naval Operations during the war, and Hamilton Jordan, White House Chief of Staff for Jimmy Carter.
Iraq War (2003-2011)
Soldiers who served in Iraq were also put at risk of asbestos exposure. In the decades preceding the war, the U.S. exported large amounts of asbestos to Iraq. Buildings made with asbestos were damaged and destroyed during battle. This damage often released asbestos fibers into the air.
The development of mesothelioma or other asbestos-related diseases involves more than active duty exposure. Many veterans often received training in specific occupations that required direct contact with asbestos. After their service, they found work in similar occupations that carried the same exposure risk. These veterans are at no less risk than those who endured exposure during active duty.
Concern regarding service-related asbestos exposure is understandable given the widespread use of asbestos containing materials by the military. Veterans who believe they may have come into contact with asbestos should consult a specialist at a VA treatment center as soon as possible, even if you are not experiencing symptoms.
VA Benefits and Asbestos
Veterans already diagnosed with mesothelioma are entitled compensation through the VA, but must file an active claim to access benefits. The type and amount of compensation awarded to veterans awith mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease is determined by the VA on a case-by-case basis.
The VA offers a variety of benefits depending on the veteran’s branch, marital status, number of dependents, disease type, and stage of cancer.
To qualify for benefits, the veteran must have been:
- Honorably discharged from the Navy, Army, Marines, Air Force or Coast Guard
- Exposed to asbestos during military service
- Have a service-connected disease or disability related to asbestos exposure
Veterans diagnosed with service-related mesothelioma are encouraged to seek more information regarding their health, treatment options. Our veterans support specialists assist in navigating the complicated claims process and maximizing VA compensation benefits.