Asbestos exposure in military branches includes the Navy, Air Force, Army, Marines, and Coast Guard. Veterans who worked on ships were most likely to be exposed, but all are at risk of developing mesothelioma. The VA offers benefits for qualifying veterans exposed to asbestos during their time in service.
How Does Asbestos Make Military Veterans Sick?
The military used asbestos for decades across all branches. The peak use was from the 1930s through the 1970s, spanning several actions and wars.
Asbestos went into materials in bases and barracks, ships, aircraft, and vehicles. When disrupted, such as through installation or repair work, the fibers of asbestos could cause harmful exposure.
Not everyone exposed to asbestos gets sick. Those who do may not have symptoms for decades and get a diagnosis of an asbestos illness years after retiring.
Illnesses Caused By Asbestos Exposure
The tiny fibers that make up asbestos can be inhaled or ingested during exposure. In the respiratory and digestive systems, these fibers lodge in tissues, causing inflammation and damage. After many years, this may cause:
- Mesothelioma. This rare cancer affects the tissue around the lungs and less commonly around the abdominal organs. It is strongly associated with asbestos exposure. Mesothelioma has a decades-long latency period, so you may not have symptoms for many years.
- Lung cancer. Many factors contribute to lung cancer, especially smoking. Asbestos exposure can also cause or increase the risk of developing lung cancer.
- Asbestososis. Although not malignant, this scarring of the lungs is progressive.
- Other illnesses. Asbestos can also cause pleural effusion, a fluid buildup around the lungs, and pleural plaques, thickening of the tissue around the lungs. These may or may not be associated with a more serious illness.
Symptoms of Asbestos Illnesses
If you served in the military during peak asbestos use, be aware of the signs and symptoms of related conditions, especially mesothelioma:
- Shortness of breath
- A persistent cough
- Chest pains
- Abdominal swelling and pain
- Clubbed fingers or toes
- Loss of appetite and weight loss
You may not be certain if you experienced asbestos exposure during service. It’s a good idea to talk to your doctor about screenings, especially if your service branch and job duties put you at a greater risk of exposure.
Asbestos in the Navy
Where Was Asbestos Used on Navy Ships?
Asbestos was used in paint and paneling all over Navy ships to insulate and protect the crew from fires. Asbestos insulation used in these ships was generally sprayed on, putting people at particular risk of inhaling fibers.
Asbestos insulation wrapped boilers and pipes and was used in pumps and around valves and gaskets, in flooring and paneling, in adhesives, in decking, in thermal materials, and even in firefighting gear.
Which Navy Jobs Posed the Biggest Risk of Exposure?
Sailors and officers who worked below decks were especially vulnerable to asbestos exposure, including those in the boiler room, the engine room, and storage rooms. Some of the Navy jobs at greatest risk of exposure to asbestos included:
- Boiler workers
- Gunner’s mates
- Maintenance technicians
- Damage controlmen
If you worked in a shipyard, building, maintaining, or repairing Navy ships, you may also have been exposed to asbestos.
When Did the Navy Stop Using Asbestos?
By the early 1980s, the Navy no longer put asbestos materials in ships. This was not, however, the endpoint for asbestos in the Navy.
It took years to remove or safely encapsulate asbestos on ships. Some ships in the Navy still contain asbestos. Current servicemen and women should be made aware of any risks posed by these asbestos materials. Those who work with or around them should receive proper training and safety gear.
Asbestos in the Marine Corps
Members of the U.S. Marine Corps have been exposed to asbestos mostly through aircraft, ships, and armored vehicles. Exposure at bases may also have been an issue.
In World War II, U.S. Navy ships full of asbestos transported marines. Later cleanup efforts found that Marine Corps bases may have exposed countless veterans to asbestos through its use in insulation, bedding, flooring, ceiling tiles, and roofing materials.
Asbestos in the Coast Guard
Just as in Navy ships, Coast Guard vessels had asbestos in the boiler room, engine room, the insulation, in gaskets and valves, and even woven into ropes to increase strength. In some cases, all interior walls were coated in asbestos to protect people from fire.
Asbestos in the Army
While Army soldiers spend less time on ships than members of other military branches, they have still been exposed to asbestos and suffered the consequences.
In the Army, exposure mainly came from buildings and vehicles. Cement, flooring, roofing, bedding, insulation in buildings and gaskets, valves, clutch plates, and brakes in vehicles were full of asbestos.
Asbestos in the Air Force
In the U.S. Air Force, workers were vulnerable to asbestos exposure from several sources. Air Force bases used asbestos in floor tiles and adhesives, ceiling tiles, drywall materials, insulation, and stucco.
On aircraft, asbestos was used in electrical insulation, gaskets and valves, as insulation in cargo bays, heat shields on engines, and in brakes. Air Force mechanics working in the aircraft that contained asbestos were put at risk.
Asbestos in the Merchant Marine
Although not part of the military, the U.S. Merchant Marine supported the Navy, especially during World War II. Merchant mariners also faced risks of asbestos exposure. Their civilian ships contained asbestos materials in components throughout.
Military Members Most at Risk of Asbestos Exposure
Anyone in the military during the time of asbestos use could have been at risk for asbestos exposure. Certain jobs, though, put workers at even greater risk of being around and inhaling asbestos fibers.
These include shipyard workers, miners, millers, construction workers, carpenters, mechanics, and ship repairers. Also at greater risk are any veterans who worked in the below-decks regions of Navy ships.
Veterans were possibly exposed to asbestos in peacetime simply by being on ships or at bases and doing their everyday jobs. Even more veterans were put at risk for asbestos exposure by serving on active duty during several wars.
Deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan could have exposed personnel to asbestos when sites containing it were bombed or otherwise destroyed, releasing asbestos into the air that veterans inhaled.
During World War II, asbestos exposure was high because asbestos use was extensive. Few people voiced concerns about its risks, and many believed it was useful for protecting military members from fire and heat.
The Vietnam War occurred during decades of peak asbestos use by the military. Veterans of this war have some of the highest rates of mesothelioma and other asbestos illnesses.
Asbestos Manufacturers and the Military
Veterans in all branches of the military were exposed to asbestos through products made by U.S. manufacturers. Companies like Johns Manville made a lot of money mining asbestos and using it in military products, especially during war.
As early as 1934, Johns Manville knew about the dangers of asbestos because of private medical testing. Later investigations determined this company and others knew of the risks of being around asbestos but failed to warn the military.
Who Is Responsible for Military Asbestos Exposure?
Veterans cannot sue the military for asbestos exposure. However, they can hold certain parties accountable and receive compensation and other benefits.
VA Benefits for Veterans of All Military Branches
Veterans exposed to asbestos through their service and are now suffering from mesothelioma or another related illness may seek compensation through the Department of Veterans Affairs. Compensation may take the form of disability compensation, health care, dependency and indemnity compensation, or special monthly compensation.
Veterans must meet certain requirements for compensation. These include never having been dishonorably discharged and proving that asbestos exposure occurred during service in the military.
Holding Asbestos Companies Responsible
Veterans can also take legal action against the companies that supplied the military with asbestos materials. They can sue these companies if they still exist. Those that went bankrupt may have trust funds available to compensate victims of past asbestos exposure.
What Should I Do if I Was Exposed to Asbestos in the Military?
If you know or suspect you encountered asbestos during your service, monitor your symptoms and talk to your doctor about any health concerns.
Contact an asbestos lawyer to help you take legal action. Mesothelioma is costly and responsible asbestos companies can be made to pay. If you qualify for VA benefits, a lawyer can also help you navigate the system.
These companies, the U.S. Military, and the government all failed veterans who have died from asbestos-related diseases or are suffering from them now. These men and women served the country and were repaid with lies and cover-ups. Lawsuits over asbestos exposure have soared as civilians and veterans alike seek justice and compensation.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.