Mesothelioma in Veterans Explained
Military service is an honorable and valuable duty that poses many risks to individuals who pursue this career. One risk that often goes unrecognized is the potential for asbestos exposure.
Tragically, many former military members are being diagnosed with mesothelioma today. Experts believe there will be many more diagnoses among veterans in the future as the latency period of this disease comes to a head.
Risk of Mesothelioma in Veterans
Military members, both active and retired, are at high risk of developing malignant mesothelioma. Approximately 30 percent of mesothelioma diagnoses involve military veterans who were exposed to asbestos during their service.
Asbestos that has been inhaled or ingested can become lodged deep within the linings of the abdomen (peritoneum) or the chest and lungs (pleura). Over time, the asbestos fibers can cause irritation that triggers cellular mutations. These cellular mutations lead to mesothelioma cancer cells.
20 to 40 years may pass before mesothelioma victims feel any symptoms. For this reason, many retired members of the Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, and Air Force are being diagnosed with mesothelioma today.
It has become so pervasive among retired military members that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has established a benefits program to compensate affected veterans for asbestos-related illnesses like mesothelioma.
Asbestos Use in the United States Military
Asbestos use in the U.S. military has a long and extensive history. From the 1930s to the early 1980s, asbestos was considered the perfect solution to many military problems.
Asbestos products were fireproof, excellent insulators, non-corrosive, electrically non-conductive, chemically stable, lightweight, widely available and exceptionally affordable. Many military machines and buildings were full of asbestos products.
Fireproofing was the main reason ships, aircraft, tanks, trucks and buildings contained asbestos. Under no circumstances would asbestos burn, and a fire was one of the highest risks active combat service people faced. Heat and cold exposure was another considerable threat to serving personnel.
Deployments on land, sea and in the air required protection from the elements as well as from enemy fire. Asbestos insulation was believed to be the best material to protect people and military assets.
Asbestos Use in Military Branches
All major U.S. military branches used asbestos in some capacity or another, which put certain veterans at greater risk.
Asbestos was used in the:
- Air Force
- Coast Guard
The use of asbestos skyrocketed during World War II. Every Navy vessel had miles of asbestos wrap on pipes and wires, as well as lining engine and boilers rooms. Air Force planes used asbestos for fireproofing and friction control. So did the Army, Marines and Coast Guard. That included mobile transport and stationary buildings like barracks, residences and administration offices.
Alert: Asbestos is Still Used Today
Asbestos use in the American military didn’t stop when World War II ended. Veterans of Korea, Vietnam and the Cold War all suffered extensive asbestos exposure. Those who served in Afghanistan and Iraq may also have been exposed.
Health Dangers from Airborne Asbestos Fibers
Some veterans suffered far more exposure than others, depending on their specific occupation or role and even their military branch. Navy personnel were the most affected.
There’s no question that asbestos causes mesothelioma. When veterans inhaled microscopic asbestos fibers during their service, these tiny particles embedded into their lung linings (mesothelium). Asbestos fibers can’t be broken down by the human body. Over time, scar tissue formed around the fibers in the mesothelium as a natural reaction by the body’s immune and repair system.
Eventually, this scar tissue mutates into cancerous tumors and causes the deadly disease known as mesothelioma. There is no known cure for mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma from asbestos exposure is different from other forms of cancer, including regular lung cancer. There is an extended latency period with mesothelioma, lasting up to 50 years. Veterans exposed to workplace asbestos fibers in the 1960s or 1970s many only now be developing mesothelioma symptoms.
How Veterans Were Exposed to Asbestos
Because asbestos was a component in constructing military vehicles and buildings, millions of veterans were placed in dangerous environments every day. Each Armed Forces branch used asbestos. However, some trades and occupations had more asbestos exposure due to how they used asbestos-containing materials.
Military personnel at risk of asbestos exposure included:
- Manufacturers: Workers involved in directly manufacturing asbestos products were highly exposed to raw asbestos materials. Civilians made most military products, so there are fewer veterans in this category.
- Installers: Many veterans installed asbestos products in equipment and buildings. They also used raw asbestos materials to manufacture parts like gaskets and wraps on site.
- Maintainers: This group had the highest exposure for military veterans. Mechanics and maintenance workers constantly disturbed asbestos fibers and filled their workspace air with pollutants.
- Those Exposed Secondhand: Veterans not directly working with asbestos products were also placed at risk by being in asbestos-contaminated areas. This group includes troops in transit, personnel involved in building demolitions and even those who worked in offices made with asbestos products. Families of military personnel also suffered secondary asbestos exposure through work clothes, vehicles and military gear.
Asbestos fibers cross-contaminating between buildings was a big problem but virtually went unnoticed. The sheer volume of ACM products used in all military branches resulted in the veteran health catastrophe unfolding today.
Asbestos Exposure in the Air Force
The U.S. Air Force used large quantities of asbestos in their aircraft construction because it was lightweight, fireproof, non-corrosive and had excellent thermal transfer properties. Asbestos lined aircraft cockpits and cargo areas, served as engine shrouds and heat shields and protected weapons.
High-friction regions of equipment like aircraft brakes were lined with asbestos. Support vehicles like fuel and service trucks contained asbestos for the same reasons.
Air Force buildings also contained loads of asbestos-based products. Roofs on hangars, barracks and base residences used asbestos shingles. Cement in foundations and fireplaces were asbestos-based. So were drywall, paint and insulation.
These Air Force veterans had the highest risk of asbestos exposure:
- Aircraft and vehicle mechanics
- Electricians and pipefitters
- Welders and metal workers
- Environmental support specialists
- Weapons technicians
Asbestos Exposure in the Army
Army soldiers and support personnel also suffered from asbestos exposure. The highest levels of exposure came from buildings and vehicles. Tank crews were especially vulnerable due to the vast amount of asbestos used in these massive machines.
Asbestos made tanks fire resistant and helped control their temperature and sound. Tank interiors were clouded with asbestos fibers simply due to the vibrations occurring when operating the tank.
Army bases built from World War II until after Vietnam all used asbestos products in construction.
Army buildings, floors, walls, ceilings and exteriors depended on asbestos materials. Most asbestos exposures affected support personnel rather than field soldiers.
Highest risk Army veteran occupations were:
- Heavy and light duty mechanics
- Carpenters and construction workers
- Tank and armored vehicle operators
- Welders and machinists
- General maintenance personnel
Asbestos Exposure in the Marines
Marines were mostly exposed to asbestos when transported in Navy ships and Air Force transport planes containing it. Fortunately, most Marines weren’t in closed containment long enough to have dangerous asbestos exposure levels.
Buildings on bases were a Marine’s most substantial exposure threat. For decades, Marine stations depended on asbestos materials for everything from floor tiles to cabinet liners. Marines trained, ate and slept in asbestos-laden halls, messes and barracks.
Marine roles most at risk for asbestos exposure included:
- Armored personnel carrier crews
- Maintenance mechanics
- Shipboard secondments
- Construction workers
- Building renovation and demolition specialists
Asbestos Exposure in the Navy
Navy veterans had the highest risk of asbestos fiber exposure — regardless of whether they were stationed at sea or on land. The U.S. Navy utilized more asbestos products than all the other military branches combined. Asbestos lined naval ships from end to end. Asbestos also filled shipyard buildings and Navy housing.
Navy ships needed asbestos for fireproofing and insulation. They also required asbestos for its non-corrosive protection from seawater rust. Asbestos wrapped electrical cables and fuel pipes. It was around boilers and inside ducts. Asbestos also secured galleys, halls and sleeping quarters.
Every Navy vet experienced asbestos exposure, but these ratings had the highest risk of developing mesothelioma:
- Shipyard workers building and repairing ships
- Welders and metal fabricators
- Boilermakers, pipefitters and electricians
- Insulators and painters
- Engine and boiler room operators
Asbestos Exposure in the Coast Guard
Coast Guard veterans had the same asbestos exposure as their other military counterparts. Coast Guard sailors and shore workers worked in an asbestos-filled environment just like Navy vets. Their boats, aircraft, bases and barracks all could have contained deadly asbestos products.
Compensation for Veterans Suffering Mesothelioma
All U.S. veterans are entitled to government-sponsored care and compensation after developing service-related mesothelioma. It’s important to know that the federal government has legal precedents preventing direct lawsuits. Instead, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has channels to process compensation claims for medical and living expenses for mesothelioma victims.
The VA mesothelioma claim process works in this manner:
- Eligibility: Applicants must be honorably discharged, exposed to asbestos during military service and have developed mesothelioma or another disease from military asbestos exposure.
- Evidence: Documented medical evidence must prove the applicant developed mesothelioma from service-related conditions. Only being exposed to asbestos without developing a disease is not a valid claim.
- Application: Veterans with asbestos-related claims can apply online or in person at a VA office. They can also retain legal counsel to represent them.
U.S. military veterans can also file lawsuits against negligent asbestos product manufacturers and suppliers. Nothing prevents a veteran from filing for VA compensation while still taking legal action against third parties. It is essential to act fast when diagnosed with mesothelioma. Depending on state jurisdiction, statutory limitation periods can apply.
Veterans who have developed mesothelioma as a result of service-related asbestos exposure may be entitled to compensation.
For more information on U.S. military veterans’ mesothelioma claims or other legal advice, call Mesothelioma Hope at (866) 608-8933.