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Asbestos Exposure and Veterans 

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 encountered varying levels of toxic asbestos dust and fibers for more than four decades.

At first, asbestos was used with the best of intentions: to protect men and women serving our country. However, the country didn’t legally restrict asbestos use until the mid to late 1970s — long after scientists and researchers discovered the toxic threat asbestos poses to humans.

Veterans make up 30 percent of mesothelioma diagnoses in the United States. Learn more about the process of claiming compensation through the VA.

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Asbestos Use by Each Military Branch

This image shows a ship that may belong to the Navy or Coast Guard.

Navy & Coast Guard Asbestos Exposure

Within the five military branches, Navy and Coast Guard veterans faced the highest levels of asbestos 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.

This image shows an army tank.

Army Asbestos Exposure

A majority of buildings and military vehicles on U.S. Army bases contained asbestos. The Army used asbestos as insulation and in 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.

This picture shows a military vehicle with a sniper on top.

Marine Corps Asbestos Exposure

Marines were most likely exposed to asbestos while on Navy ships and in military shipyards. Sailors and Marines lived and 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. It was also used to insulate pipes and plumbing.

This picture shows an Air Force helicopter.

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 Air Force used asbestos 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 Military Occupations for Asbestos Exposure

This picture represents the different service members of the military who may have been exposed to asbestos during their time of service.

  • Navy
    • Boatswain’s Mate
    • Damage Controlman
    • Electrician’s Mate
    • Fire Control Technician
    • Gunner’s Mate
    • Hull Maintenance Technician
    • Machinery Repairman
    • Machinist’s Mate
    • Metalsmith
    • Pipefitter
    • Radioman
    • Seabee
    • Water Tender
    • Welder
  • Army
    • Aircraft Mechanic
    • Artilleryman
    • Infantryman
    • Vehicle Mechanic
  • Air Force
    • Aircraft Handler
    • Aircraft Mechanic
    • Electrical Systems Specialist
    • Environmental Systems Specialist
    • Fire Control Technician
    • Metalsmith
  • Coast Guard
    • Marine Inspectors
  • Marine Corps
    • Marines on Navy Ships
    • Mechanics

To date, tens of thousands of veterans have been diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases. And experts expect those numbers 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.

Though veterans are three times more likely to develop mesothelioma than civilians, not all branches and occupations carry the same risk.

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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 honorably discharged U.S. service members may apply for VA benefits. These 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:

1.  A current diagnosis of an asbestos-related illness recognized by the VA
2.  Proof the service member worked with or was exposed to asbestos during the time they served
3.  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:

1.  Apply online through eBenefits.
2.  Contact a qualified attorney, Veterans Service Organization, or claims agent for help.
3.  Visit a VA regional office near you.

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.

Veterans who aren’t eligible for VA benefits can still seek legal compensation. Reach out to learn about options for veterans and their loved ones.

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