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Navy Veterans and Mesothelioma

All branches of the U.S. military have used asbestos in the past, but none used it as extensively as the U.S. Navy. Today we know how harmful it can be to accidentally breathe in or consume asbestos fibers, but in earlier decades, especially from World War II into the 1970s, the facts were not all in and the unique properties and ready availability of this mineral made it a desirable component for insulation and fireproofing on Navy ships.

Decades after service, many veterans of the U.S. Navy have been diagnosed with illnesses associated with working around asbestos, including the aggressive and deadly type of cancer known as mesothelioma. These veterans served their country and suffered as a result. Legal action and compensation from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) can help veterans recover monetary damages for being sick. The VA can also provide specialty cancer care and mesothelioma treatment. 

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Asbestos and its Uses

Asbestos is a natural mineral that people have used in the construction of buildings and boats for more than 1,000 years. It is abundant and inexpensive and has unique properties that make it useful for many applications. Asbestos is strong and can be added to materials like cement to make them more durable. It resists fire and heat, electricity, and eve chemical reactions. These properties make it useful for insulation and fireproofing.

All of these properties, and the fact that it is abundant and inexpensive, that led the U.S. Navy to use asbestos so extensively in its ships. Fires can be deadly for an entire crew when they happen at sea, so protecting ships from catching fire or to keep fires under control is crucial. Also important is insulating pipes, boilers, engines, and other parts of the ship that are heated. That asbestos is lightweight and flexible enough to be formed into any shape also made it useful for so many ship applications and materials.

A History of Asbestos Use in the Navy

Asbestos use was nothing new in the years leading up to World War II, but this was the time when the U.S. Navy began to use it so extensively. Around 1939 shipbuilding in the Navy accelerated as entry into the war seemed inevitable and only a matter of time. The military began stockpiling materials, including asbestos, and making new ships to prepare for what was coming.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that the U.S. government began regulating the use of asbestos that Navy ships slowed the use of the mineral. Many veterans of World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War were exposed to asbestos because of working on Navy ships.

Exposure on Navy Ships

Asbestos used on ships of all kinds, including U.S. Navy ships, is found throughout the structure. Certain parts of ships have more asbestos than others, though. The boiler rooms of ships contained a lot of asbestos because boilers produce a lot of heat and need to be insulated. The pipes and ducts running to and from the boiler also had to be insulated. These ran all over the ships and even through the living and eating quarters of the sailors. Men and women who worked in the boiler room were more vulnerable to asbestos exposure than other sailors.

Pumps, valves, and gaskets also contained asbestos. The mechanical pumps used to power heating, cooling, bilge systems, and other parts of the ships used these materials. Those Navy members who worked on repairing them are among those veterans who now have the highest rates of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related illnesses. As they worked on materials containing asbestos, they disturbed the fibers and inhaled them.

In addition to the above servicemen and women who were at risk, all sailors and officers serving on ships shared some degree of exposure risks. Asbestos was nearly everywhere on board: flooring, wall panels, cables, packing materials, adhesives, deck materials, bedding, and fireproof materials and clothing.

Navy Jobs at Greatest Risk of Asbestos Exposure

Certain Navy veterans are more likely to suffer from asbestos illnesses than others, depending on the jobs they held on ships, including those working in boiler rooms and those that repaired and maintained systems like the pumps. Also at great risk for asbestos exposure were electricians and gunner’s mates. The former were exposed through the insulation around wires while the latter actually wore asbestos gloves that wore down over time and released fibers.

Damage controlmen were also at an increased risk for asbestos exposure. These were the sailors that made repairs, sometimes in an emergency situation, to the infrastructure of a ship after an attack. They were exposed to asbestos through damaged materials, but also through the fireproof clothing they wore. Pipefitters and metalsmiths were also at risk for exposure, working with the asbestos insulation and wearing asbestos-containing protective gear, respectively.

Serious Consequences for Navy Veterans

While not all veterans will experience illness from asbestos exposure, the consequences for too many have included damaging and deadly diseases, including cancer. When a person breathes in asbestos fibers they get lodged in tissues, especially in and around the lungs, and cause damage. Asbestosis is a chronic lung disease that may be triggered by inhaled asbestos. It causes coughing and difficulty breathing. It is not curable and is progressive.

Lung cancer can also be caused by asbestos and is often deadly and difficult to treat. Mesothelioma is also a consequence of exposure to asbestos. It is a rare and aggressive type of cancer that most commonly affects the lining of the lungs or abdomen. Mesothelioma rates are higher in U.S. Navy veterans than in many other population groups.

Navy veterans who were exposed to asbestos during wartime or non-active duty service did not realize the danger they were in. Many were diagnosed with these illnesses decades later. By the time most of these illnesses are diagnosed they are very difficult to treat and are most often deadly and cause uncomfortable and painful symptoms.

U.S. Navy Asbestos Medical Surveillance Program

Starting in the 1970s when knowledge of the dangers of asbestos came to light, the U.S. Navy started AMSP, the Asbestos Medical Surveillance Program. The program was put in place to monitor the health of Navy veterans and civilians who worked on or near Navy ships and who were likely to have been exposed to asbestos. The purpose is to detect any asbestos-related illnesses early. The earlier these illnesses are diagnosed the easier it is to treat them and the better the prognosis for patients.

Merchant Marine Ships

It was not just veterans who have suffered from asbestos in ships. The U.S. Merchant Marines, civilians who support the U.S. Military, mostly by using ships to transport troops and supplies, were also affected. These civilians were active in World War II and were a crucial part of the war effort.

Mariners were exposed to asbestos in the same ways that sailors were aboard Navy and civilian ships. One study of Merchant Marines from that time period found that one-third had some type of anomaly in the lungs that could lead to mesothelioma. These crucial support workers for the U.S. Navy have suffered poor health because of asbestos exposure.

Compensation and Benefits for Navy Veterans

The VA provides benefits for Navy veterans that were exposed to asbestos and became ill as a consequence. Claims for benefits must be backed up by evidence that asbestos exposure caused an illness and that exposure happened during service in the Navy. The types of compensation these veterans are eligible for include disability compensation, dependency and indemnity compensation, given to dependents, special and monthly disability, and health care. The VA hospital in Los Angeles specializes in the study and treatment of mesothelioma.

A lawsuit is another option for seeking compensation as a Navy veteran. Veterans or their surviving families may sue the manufacturers of materials that contain asbestos. These companies may be liable for having supplied the military with harmful materials.

Some veterans have earned compensation this way, by filing a lawsuit against a company. They include the family of one veteran that died of mesothelioma and recovered $10 million from several manufacturers. If you are a veteran, or dependent of a veteran, that was exposed to asbestos during service and became ill, you have rights to ask for compensation. Contact an asbestos lawyer to find out what your options are and how to proceed.

Page Edited by 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. Connect with Patient Advocate Dave Foster
  1. U.S. Veterans Administration. (n.d.). Veterans Asbestos Exposure.
    Retrieved from: https://www.va.gov/disability/eligibility/hazardous-materials-exposure/asbestos/
  2. Selikoff, I.J., Lilis R. & Levin, G. (1990). Asbestotic Radiological Abnormalities Among United States Merchant Marine Seamen. Br. J. Ind. Med., 47(5), 292-7.
    Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1035162/?pageindex=1&tool=pmcentrez

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