Asbestos in the U.S. Coast Guard put veterans at risk of exposure and of developing serious illnesses decades later. Ships contained hundreds of materials with asbestos. As a result, many Coast Guard veterans have been diagnosed with mesothelioma or other related diseases.
Why Is Asbestos Dangerous to Coast Guard Veterans?
Veterans have higher rates of mesothelioma than the general population. The only known cause of this rare cancer is asbestos. Its use in the military put millions of service members at risk.
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, which must meet weight limits.
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.
How Did the Coast Guard Use Asbestos?
All branches of the military used asbestos, but the heaviest use was on ships. This put Coast Guard service members at particular risk of exposure and illness.
Asbestos on Coast Guard Vessels
The properties that make asbestos so useful for shipbuilding purposes also 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 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.
Asbestos in Shipyards
Coast Guard boats and cutters were the primary sources of asbestos exposure in veterans. Workers in Coast Guard shipyards before 1990 handled asbestos materials that went on these vessels. They risked exposure, even if they did not serve on boats.
The Curtis Bay Coast Guard Yard
The primary shipyard for the Coast Guard was originally the Curtis Bay Coast Guard Yard in Maryland. Today it is referred to as the United States Coast Guard Yard.
When asbestos was in heavy use in shipbuilding 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 pipe fittings, 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. In 2002, the Environmental Protection Agency designated it a Superfund site and began clean-up procedures in 2008.
Which Coast Guard Veterans Are Most at Risk of Asbestos Illnesses?
Asbestos-related illnesses take decades to develop and for signs of them to become obvious. Many Coast Guard veterans were surprised to find they were dying of mesothelioma or lung cancer so long after serving the country.
Because it usually takes decades to get a diagnosis, most veterans 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 medical care expenses. Coast Guard jobs with the highest risk of exposure and later illnesses include:
- Boiler room and engine workers
- Shipyard and vessel insulators
- Ship inspectors
- Vessel renovators
- Demolition workers
Does the Coast Guard Get VA Benefits?
Yes, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, or VA, offers disability benefits to all branches of the military, including the Coast Guard.
It provides free resources, guides, and information on getting compensation and health care for asbestos-related diseases.
What Types of Benefits Can Coast Guard Veterans Get?
Coast Guard veterans affected by asbestos are entitled to the same disability and benefits as veterans of other branches:
- Monthly Disability. If you have an asbestos-related illness due to exposure during military service, you may be entitled to monthly disability payments. The VA considers mesothelioma and asbestos lung cancer to be 100% disabling.
- Special Compensation. You can seek additional disability if you require in-home nursing care or aides, or if you have other special needs related to the illness.
- Dependency and Indemnity Compensation. Surviving family members, usually spouses and children, can claim compensation as well.
- Healthcare. The VA offers healthcare to veterans with mesothelioma and other asbestos illnesses. You can find VA medical facilities all over the country, but those in Boston and Los Angeles are staffed by specialists in mesothelioma.
How Do I File a Claim for VA Disability Benefits?
To receive compensation, a veteran must file a VA claim and demonstrate that the illness was caused by asbestos exposure during military service. You must prove exposure and show that you never received a dishonorable discharge. Some of the supporting documents that will help your claim include:
- Discharge papers
- Service records
- Medical records during service
- Medical records after service
- Supporting statements from other veterans or doctors
Filing a claim can be complicated, but Veteran Service Officers (VSOs) are available to help. They are approved to work with veterans to gather documents and make a claim.
Do I Need a Lawyer to Get Benefits?
You don’t need a lawyer to file a claim or get benefits, but they can be helpful. A lawyer experienced in veteran benefits can help you in several ways:
- Getting your documents together
- Investigating your military exposure
- Using databases to find which companies supplied the Coast Guard with asbestos
- Finding and submitting proof of your exposure
- Getting you access to the best healthcare and physicians who can provide additional evidence
Can I File a Lawsuit Over Coast Guard Asbestos Exposure?
Some veterans have chosen to sue the manufacturers and suppliers of asbestos products to the Coast Guard. These veterans, including some from the Coast Guard, claim that the military never informed them of the risks associated with these materials.
They claim the manufacturers should also 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 $2.6 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.Get Your FREE Mesothelioma Packet
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.