Asbestos in the U.S. Coast Guard
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 with in 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 countless Coast Guard service members to asbestos over the years.
Ships and smaller vessels used in the Coast Guard contained asbestos for decades. It 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, and they have resources that can help.
Asbestos and its Dangers
Asbestos is a mineral that has been utilized by people for millennia. It is easy to find and mine, which makes it inexpensive. More importantly, though, it has unique properties that make it so 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, which we now know about, is that it is extremely damaging to human health. In fact, it can be deadly. Asbestos is made up of small fibers, which can become airborne. When in the air, they can be inhaled. In the body they 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. It is important that systems on ships run efficiently and that fire is either prevented from breaking out or from spreading if it does happen. 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.
To prevent the spread of fire on ships, which is extremely dangerous to anyone on board a ship, asbestos was used for fireproofing. Many components of ships were 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. In years past, a lot of asbestos 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 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 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 takes decades to reach a diagnosis, most veterans receiving this diagnosis are already in the later stages of the disease.
Being ill with mesothelioma, lung cancer, or asbestosis, which is painful and difficult but not fatal, 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 get compensation a veteran must file a VA claim and demonstrate that the illness was caused by asbestos exposure and that the exposure occurred during service in the military. A successful claim may get a veteran disability compensation, special compensation, and special medical care at a mesothelioma specialty center. 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 and that they claim were known to carry risks. These veterans, including some from the Coast Guard claim that they were not informed of the risks 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.
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