Of all the statistics and information available regarding the dangers of asbestos and the impact that it has had on the health and well-being of people all around the world, perhaps the most disturbing is the fact that in the United States, nearly one third of all mesothelioma victims are veterans of one of branches of the Armed Services. Military personnel went off to war well aware of the risks that they faced at the hands of the enemy but never dreamed that fifty years after their service they would face an even tougher foe. Though the majority of those impacted were personnel who served in the Navy, service men and women who spent their years in the Air Force, Army, Coast Guard and Marines are all represented among the victims of asbestos.
Asbestos was Meant to Protect
The reason that mesothelioma is so widespread among American military is easily traceable to the many positive characteristics that made asbestos popular for industrial purposes in the first place. Asbestos is strong, inexpensive and fire and heat retardant. Without the knowledge that asbestos posed such serious risks to human health, it was an obvious choice for a component that would safeguard the lives of America’s military. The use of the product in industrial settings all across the country coincided with the forty year period between the beginning of World War II and the end of the Vietnam War, when so many people served our country.
Ships and the Military
During World War II and the Korean War, the United States built a large number of ships for use in the conflict – so many were built during World War II, particularly after the loss of the fleet in Pearl Harbor that needed to be replaced, that nearly 5 million people were employed in the shipyards, and a large percentage of them were exposed to asbestos. Those who lived and worked in the ships were exposed to asbestos because they were exposed to it in such close quarters, and those who actually constructed the ships – from the plumbers who installed the pipes to the welders who put the hulls together – were exposed to it because the materials that they were working with were made of the toxic material.
The asbestos was so prevalent in the atmosphere of the shipyard that workers who passed through administrative areas that were far from the actual worksite would leave trails of dust behind them, thus exposing even the secretarial pool to asbestos. There are many cases of people getting sick from this type of secondary exposure, including the wives of shipyard builders who contracted mesothelioma after year of laundering their husbands’ asbestos-laden work clothes.
Barracks and Battleships Alike
Though Navy veterans make up the majority of veterans affected by mesothelioma, members of all branches were exposed to asbestos in a variety of ways.
- Navy Veterans
Navy personnel were exposed to asbestos at nearly every turn on and off the ships. The Navy yards where the ships were built were covered with asbestos dust, and once on board the sailors who worked in boiler and engine rooms, those who worked with the electrical systems or any of the equipment, even those in the radio rooms, which were insulated with asbestos ceiling and floor tiles were at risk.
- Army Veterans
Army personnel were exposed to asbestos in large part in the buildings that they worked, trained, lived and ate in. Whether barracks or mess halls, most buildings were built using fire-retardant asbestos tiles and insulation.
- Air Force Veterans
Like the Army personnel, the living quarters where Air Force personnel were housed were constructed using asbestos. Even more dangerously, the personnel that serviced the aircraft were constantly exposed to the asbestos that was used in brake pads and linings as well as insulation found within the engines.
- Marine Corps Veterans
In most cases, the asbestos exposure that Marines suffered came while being transported via the same ships that the Navy lived and worked in. These ships were painted, outfitted and insulated with asbestos products. Some military personnel remember clouds of asbestos filtering down through the ships’ seams every time that their guns were fired, covering the men in asbestos dust.
VA Benefits and Care
Though America’s veterans are provided with benefits through the VA, the specialized care that is required for the treatment of asbestos-related diseases is best provided by the top cancer centers in the country, and VA benefits rarely cover these expenses to the extent that is necessary. Care for our country’s benefits in the case of mesothelioma is also complicated by the fact that mesothelioma does not make itself known until decades after the initial exposure, and the symptoms of the disease so closely resemble other, more benign and common illnesses that valuable time goes by before a true diagnosis is made, leaving the patient far sicker and farther along in the progression of the cancer.