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, a naturally occurring mineral called 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.

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Asbestos Use by Military Branch

The U.S. Military once used the toxic mineral in several different capacities.

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 fibers below deck and in sleeping quarters. Vessels were covered in contaminated 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 fibers into the air.

Army Asbestos Exposure

A majority of buildings and military vehicles on U.S. Army bases contained the toxin. The Army used the mineral in cement flooring and insulation, 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 the mineral 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 the toxin since 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 Air Force also used the mineral to insulate ceilings, walls, and floor tiles in buildings and barracks. Contaminated 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 Exposure

  • 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 the toxic 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 prolonged exposure.

Indirect Exposure

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 the 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 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 the mineral during the time they served
3.  A ‘nexus letter’ from a doctor to prove the current disease diagnosis is a result of prolonged 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.

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