Asbestos and Its Uses
Asbestos is a natural mineral that people have used for thousands of years. It is abundant and inexpensive and has unique properties that make it useful for many applications, especially insulation and fireproofing.
These properties have made asbestos a popular material in shipbuilding in both civilian industries and the U.S. Navy. Fires can be deadly out at sea, so protecting ships from catching fire is crucial.
Also important is insulating pipes, boilers, engines, and other parts of the ship that are heated. Asbestos is easy to mold and lightweight, and for all these reasons, many Navy veterans worked with or were exposed to asbestos during their service. 
A History of Asbestos Use in the Navy
Asbestos use was nothing new in the years leading up to World War II, but around 1939 shipbuilding in the Navy accelerated as entry into the war seemed inevitable. The military began stockpiling materials, including asbestos, and making new ships to prepare for what was coming.
It wasn’t until the 1970s when 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:
- The boiler rooms of ships contained asbestos because they produce so much heat and require insulation.
- 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 these parts of ships now have the highest rates of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related illnesses.
Although some were at greater risk than others, all service men and women on board experienced 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:
- Boiler room work
- Pump maintenance
- Gunner’s mates
- Damage controlmen
While insulation was the biggest source of exposure, gunner’s mates wore protective gloves made with asbestos. If those wore down, they could be exposed to fibers.
Controlmen were responsible for infrastructure repairs, sometimes in emergency situations. They were exposed to asbestos through damaged materials, but also through the fireproof clothing they wore.
Health 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 also results from 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.
U.S. Navy Asbestos Medical Surveillance Program
Starting in the 1970s, when 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 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.
Exposure on Merchant Marine 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 by asbestos. 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 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 who were exposed to asbestos during service and became ill. The types of compensation these veterans are eligible for include:
- Disability compensation
- Dependency and indemnity compensation
- Special and monthly disability
- Health care
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 asbestos materials manufacturers.
If you are a veteran, or dependent of a veteran, who was exposed to asbestos during service and became ill, you have the right to ask for compensation. Contact an asbestos lawyer to find out what your options are and how to proceed.
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.