Each year, an estimated 3,300 people are diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma, a rare but virulent type of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. Of those patients, nearly a third are veterans who were exposed to high levels of toxic dust and fibers while serving on military bases and working on ships or in shipyards.
Durable, light, and corrosion and fire resistant, asbestos appeared to be the perfect material for U.S. military bases. From the 1930s until the late 1970s, it was used to insulate boiler and engine rooms on Navy ships, to line brakes on vehicles and aircraft, and even in some mess halls and military barracks. As a result, service members were exposed to varying levels of toxic asbestos dust and fibers for more than four decades.
Asbestos Use in the Military
At first, asbestos was used with the best of intentions: to protect men and women serving our country. However, asbestos wasn’t restricted until the mid to late 1970s — long after scientists and researchers discovered the material was toxic to humans.
Nearly a third of people diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma are veterans.
Navy & Coast Guard Asbestos Exposure
Within the five military branches, Navy and Coast Guard veterans faced the highest levels of exposure and, consequently, have the highest risk of developing mesothelioma. Poor ventilation systems on ships and submarines often meant larger concentrations of airborne asbestos below deck and in sleeping quarters. Vessels were covered in asbestos-containing materials, like insulation and paint. Sailors and crew members often had to repair the ships, which frequently meant chipping and grinding away at carcinogenic materials, releasing toxic asbestos fibers into the air.
Army Asbestos Exposure
A majority of buildings and military vehicles on U.S. Army bases contained asbestos. The material was used as insulation and was incorporated into cement flooring, roof tiles, and plumbing. It was also used to line vehicle brake systems and gaskets. The military closed or restructured many of these buildings in the 1990s. However, the structures that remained open underwent repairs — exposing a new generation of service members to toxic fibers and dust.
Marine Corps Asbestos Exposure
Marines were most likely exposed to asbestos while working on Navy ships and in military shipyards. Sailors and Marines worked in close quarters above and below deck, surrounded by asbestos-containing products. Sleeping berths, mess halls, and boiler and engine rooms all contained asbestos, and it was also used to insulate pipes and plumbing.
Air Force Asbestos Exposure
During the first and second World Wars, the Air Force was a part of the U.S. Army. The organization expanded rapidly during World War II and was named as a separate military branch in 1947 — a time when asbestos use on bases, military vehicles, and aircraft was widespread. The fiber was used to insulate ceilings, walls, and floor tiles in buildings and barracks. Asbestos-laden materials were found in aircraft brake systems, engine valves, and gaskets. Airmen, especially mechanics, were repeatedly exposed to high levels of the toxic mineral, putting them at risk for future asbestos-related illnesses.
High-Risk Asbestos Exposure Occupations
- Boatswain’s Mate
- Damage Controlman
- Electrician’s Mate
- Fire Control Technician
- Gunner’s Mate
- Hull Maintenance Technician
- Machinist’s Mate
- Machinery Repairman
- Water Tender
- Aircraft Mechanic
- Vehicle Mechanic
- Air Force
- Aircraft Mechanic
- Environmental Support Specialist
- Coast Guard
- Marine Inspectors
- Marine Corps
- Marines Working on Navy Ships
To date, tens of thousands of veterans have been diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases. Those numbers are expected to increase, due to the long latency period — between 10 and 50 years — of cancers like mesothelioma. It often takes decades for asbestos fibers to create the scarring that can lead to tumors, making it likely that more veterans will be diagnosed with a multitude of diseases solely due to exposure to asbestos.
Indirect Exposure to Asbestos
Asbestos wasn’t just harmful to the service members who worked with it on a daily basis — their families were often exposed to the toxic dust. Microscopic pieces of asbestos fibers attached to the workers’ clothing, hair, and skin and often became embedded in furniture, carpet, and other areas of their homes.
Doctors refer to this as ‘indirect’ or ‘secondary’ exposure, and it can be just as harmful as working with the material directly. Repeated asbestos exposure — in any form — is potentially dangerous and can cause health problems. Before the United States dramatically restricted asbestos use in the late 1970s, coming home with asbestos-laden clothing, tools, and shoes was a common occurrence.
Filing a Claim With The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)
All service members who were honorably discharged from the U.S. military are eligible for VA benefits, which include monthly disability payments, medical expenses, and survivor benefits (referred to as dependency or indemnity compensation) for family members. Veterans who developed mesothelioma or a related illness as a result of asbestos exposure can apply for compensation directly through the VA, which will determine individual eligibility.
In order to start the VA claims process, a veteran must have three things:
- A current diagnosis of an asbestos-related illness recognized by the VA
- Proof the service member worked with or was exposed to asbestos during the time they served
- A ‘nexus letter’ from a doctor to prove the current disease diagnosis is a result of asbestos exposure
How to file a VA claim
There are three ways to file a VA Claim:
- Apply online through eBenefits
- Contact a qualified attorney, Veterans Service Organization, or claims agent for help
- Visit a VA regional benefit office near you.
The claims process can be somewhat complicated — one small mistake can lead to a denial of coverage. This is where a VA claims attorney can help.
Some veterans may also receive additional compensation through other means, including asbestos trust funds, personal injury cases, and wrongful death lawsuits. Learn more about your legal options when facing mesothelioma.