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Military service is not restricted to the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force. The fifth branch of the U.S. Military is the U.S. Coast Guard, the only branch to now be organized within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Like the Navy, the Coast Guard relies heavily on boats and ships. And like Navy ships, these boats and other factors have exposed many Coast Guard service members to asbestos over the years.
Ships and smaller vessels used in the Coast Guard were constructed with asbestos for decades. The ineral, assocaited with mesothelioma and other cancers, was used in multiple applications, but mostly to insulate and to fireproof. As an inexpensive, abundant mineral with many uses, it was commonly used throughout all types of ships and boats through the 1970s when the health hazards became well known. Today there are veterans of Coast Guard service that are suffering because of asbestos exposure, but there are resources that can help.
Asbestos and its Dangers
Asbestos is a mineral that people have been using for thousands of years, although only on a large scale in the last 100 years or so. Asbestos is abundant and inexpensive, and it has unique properties that make it useful in all types of construction, including the construction of ships.
Asbestos is fire and heat resistant, it resists electricity and chemical reactions, it is lightweight and yet it is strong. These are all attributes that make it especially useful for applications on ships, on which weight must be minimized.
The problem with asbestos, though, is that it is harmful to human health. Asbestos is made up of small fibers, which can become airborne and be inhaled. In the body these fibers lodge in tissues, particularly in respiratory tissues, and cause damage. Asbestos exposure over time is known to cause lung cancer, asbestosis, and mesothelioma. These illnesses are typically not diagnosed until after a person has been exposed to asbestos for decades.
Asbestos on Coast Guard Vessels
The properties that make asbestos so useful for shipbuilding purposes are also what put so many Coast Guard service members at risk of getting sick with asbestosis or dying from lung cancer or mesothelioma. The importance of insulating and protecting against fire on ships cannot be understated, and asbestos is useful in both applications. It was used extensively in Coast Guard ships to insulate things like boilers, pipes and ducts, pumps, turbines, electrical wires, and plumbing.
Many components of ships were also sprayed with asbestos for fireproofing. Spray-on asbestos is particularly hazardous to health because it releases fibers into the air. Fireproof clothing, like gloves for welders, also contained asbestos. Asbestos was also incorporated into materials on ships to strengthen them. It was even woven into ropes used on Coast Guard ships.
The Curtis Bay Coast Guard Yard
Working on boats and ships in the U.S. Coast Guard was not the only source of asbestos exposure for those who served in this branch of the military. Those who worked on repairing and building ships actually handled the asbestos and are some of the most at-risk veterans for developing lung cancer, mesothelioma, or asbestosis.
The primary shipyard for the Coast Guard was originally the Curtis Bay Coast Guard Yard in Maryland. Today is referred to as the United States Coast Guard Yard. When asbestos was in heavy use in ship building and repair, tons of it went through the Yard and put thousands of workers at risk. Before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency put restrictions on asbestos use in the 1970s, the military used hundreds of products that contained asbestos.
Most of these were used to some degree at Curtis Bay and included pipes and pipefittings, engine and boiler room components, flooring, deck coatings, electrical equipment, insulation, and fireproof protective gear. Coast Guard veterans who had careers working in the Curtis Bay Yard were put at huge risk of developing deadly asbestos-related diseases decades later.
Asbestos and the Health of Veterans
Asbestos-related illnesses take decades to develop and for signs of them to become obvious. Many veterans of the Coast Guard and other branches of the military were surprised to find they were dying of mesothelioma or lung cancer so long after serving the country.
Mesothelioma is a particularly insidious asbestos disease that causes difficulty breathing, chest pains, and coughing and is almost always impossible to cure. Because it usually takes decades to get a diagnosis, most veterans receiving this diagnosis are already in the later stages of the disease when treatment is difficult and life expectancy short.
Being ill with mesothelioma, lung cancer, or asbestosis means suffering physical pain, emotional pain, and often struggling with the expenses of medical care. These veterans, Coast Guard and otherwise, who served our country too often pay the price as older men and women, and pay with their health.
VA Resources for Veterans Exposed to Asbestos
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, or VA, provides free resources, guides, and information on getting compensation and health care for asbestos-related diseases. To receive compensation a veteran must file a VA claim and demonstrate that the illness was caused by asbestos exposure that occurred during service in the military.
A successful claim may result in disability compensation, special compensation, or specialist medical care at a VA hospital or a cancer treatment center that employs experts in managing mesothelioma and other asbestos illnesses. A claim may also be made for the families of veterans who died from an asbestos disease.
Some veterans have chosen to sue the manufacturers of products they used or were exposed to during service. These veterans, including some from the Coast Guard, claim that they were not informed of the risks associated with these materials and that the manufacturers should have included warnings. These lawsuits have the potential to provide veterans and their families with another source of compensation.
One Coast Guard veteran who worked at Curtis Bay in the 1950s died of mesothelioma in 2001. He started a lawsuit against Owens-Illinois Glass, which manufactured asbestos products and his family continued the lawsuit after his death. The family won $4.2 million for the veteran’s wrongful death. If you are a Coast Guard veteran who has been diagnosed with mesothelioma or another asbestos illness, you too may have a case to make, or at the very least can contact the VA to find out about available resources.
Page Edited by Patient Advocate Dave Foster
Dave has been a mesothelioma Patient Advocate for over 10 years. He consistently attends all major national and international mesothelioma meetings. In doing so, he is able to stay on top of the latest treatments, clinical trials, and research results. He also personally meets with mesothelioma patients and their families and connects them with the best medical specialists and legal representatives available.