About a third of the 3,000 malignant mesothelioma diagnoses made each year affect Veterans. This rare but deadly disease is so prevalent among service members because asbestos was widely used in almost all branches of the military including Air Force, Army, Marines, Navy, and Coast Guard from 1935 to 1975.
Asbestos is a durable mineral with excellent fire resistance, insulating qualities, and fireproofing capabilities, which made it an ideal component for several materials that the military used, such as brakes, gaskets, valves, cements, adhesives, and floor and pipe coverings, called lagging.
Asbestos-containing materials that are not frayed, peeling or falling apart are not considered an immediate threat. But asbestos becomes a hazard when it is friable or, in other words, when the material is crumbled or damaged allowing the microscopic asbestos fibers become airborne. These tiny fibers can get into the lungs where, over several years, they can cause mesothelioma or other asbestos-related diseases.
While asbestos-containing materials were used in all branches of the military, it was far more prevalent in Navy shipyards and ships built by the Navy before the mid-1970s. Asbestos was mostly used in engine and boiler rooms as well as other areas below deck. But it could also be found in navigation rooms, sleeping quarters and mess halls. As a result, Navy Veterans have the highest rate of asbestos-related diseases among all military personnel.
How Were Service Members Exposed to Asbestos?
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, service members at risk for asbestos exposure include:
- Navy Veterans who worked in shipyards from the 1930s through the 1990s
- Service members involved in renovation of asbestos-containing structures or the removal of asbestos materials
- Navy Veterans who served on ships whose keels were laid before 1983
- Navy personnel who worked below deck before the early 1990s since asbestos was most often used below the deck and ventilation was generally poor
- Navy Seamen who were frequently tasked with removing damaged asbestos lagging in engine rooms and re-wrapped pipes using asbestos paste, especially if wet technique was not used in the removal
- Service members who worked with, handled, damaged or disturbed any materials that contained asbestos
- Pipe fitters, welders, boiler operators, building renovation and demolition workers in any branch of the military before the mid-1990s
Secondary Asbestos Exposure
Veterans’ loved ones could be at risk for secondary asbestos exposure because service members who worked in asbestos-contaminated environments could have gotten asbestos fibers on their bodies, clothing and shoes. Hugging or even washing the clothing of someone who had asbestos fibers on them can expose others to the cancer-causing mineral and thus increase their risk for mesothelioma.
In fact, a 1997 study conducted by Durham and Duke University Medical Centers involving women with mesothelioma found that more than half of them were victims of secondary asbestos exposure either from a parent, spouse or child working in asbestos-contaminated environments.
A Known Risk/History
In August 1938, a study published as a Public Health Bulletin under the direction of the U.S. Surgeon General is one of the first that linked asbestos exposure to adverse health effects.
The following year, the Navy recommended that exposure controls be used during asbestos handling because of this risk. H.E. Jenkins, a medical officer for the Navy, wrote to the Boston Naval Yard noting that those covering pipes were “thoroughly wetting down asbestos-containing insulating material,” but recommended that “personnel wear a respirator and protective gloves” when working with the asbestos-containing material.
In 1941, Ernest Brown, a captain in the Navy Medical Corps, acknowledged in a military publication that “there is a potential occupation disease hazard due to inhalation of asbestos dust among workers engaged in the manufacture of asbestos insulating covers for flanges, valves, and high temperature steam turbines.” He suggested control measures be implemented including moistening of the asbestos material, using localized exhaust ventilation, and wearing a respirator when in dusty environments.
In a 1941 memorandum, Commander Charles S. Stephenson, head of the Division of Preventative Medicine within the Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, wrote to Admiral McIntyre, U.S. Navy Surgeon General, in regard to asbestos exposure, “we are having a considerable amount of work done in asbestos and from my observations, I am certain that we are not protecting the men as we should. This is a matter of official report from several of our Navy Yards.”
That same year, the U.S. Navy Department Bureau of Medicine and Surgery published a booklet, Statistics of Diseases and Injuries in the United States Navy for the Calendar Year 1939, that recommended methods for preventing asbestos exposure including local exhaust ventilation for insulators in the fabrication shop.
Yet, despite the Navy recognizing the occupation hazards posed by asbestos exposure, it remained in use and was even designated as a critical raw material to aid in the war effort during World War II. As a result, industries outside the military were banned from using certain types of asbestos, like chrysotile asbestos and various grades of amosite asbestos, so that defense orders could be filled.
Disability benefits such as health care or compensation may be available for honorably discharged vets who have an illness believed to be caused by asbestos exposure while serving in the military. Spouses, dependent children or family caregivers of Veterans may be eligible for benefits as well.
The VA decides these claims on a case-by-case basis.
Asbestos-related diseases recognized by the VA include:
- the chronic lung disease asbestosis;
- pleural plaques caused by scarring in the inner surface of the ribcage and areas surrounding the lungs that can cause breathing problems.
- Cancer, specifically lung cancer and mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer that develops in the lining surrounding the lung (pleural membrane) or abdominal cavity (peritoneum).
Veterans who worked in certain jobs or with certain products should talk with a doctor about getting tested for diseases that affect the lungs if they worked in the following areas:
Or if they made or worked with products like:
- Cement sheet
- Friction products like clutch facings and brake linings
Spouses, surviving spouses, dependent children, or the family caregiver of a service member or Veteran may qualify for health care benefits and, in certain cases, qualify for health care benefits due to a disability related to the Veteran’s service.
Mesothelioma Treatment For Veterans
Only a few medical centers in the U.S. have expertise in treating the full spectrum of mesothelioma. Two are within the VA Healthcare network, and both see patients from across the country.
VA Boston Health Care System diagnoses and develops personalized therapy for Veterans with malignant pleural mesothelioma, including radical pleurectomy and decortication (P/D), extra-pleural pneumonectomy (EPP), as well as end-of-life options. The division of General Thoracic Surgery at the West Roxbury Campus within the VA system has the largest complex non-cardiac surgical volume within the VA Healthcare network performing approximately 300 cases annually.
The Mesothelioma Center at West Los Angeles VA Medical Center treats Veterans with all stages of mesothelioma and offers surgical, radiation and medical oncology services. The Mesothelioma Center has partnered with the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) to provide Veterans with lung-sparing surgery and innovative inoperative and postoperative therapies that focus on quality of life as well as survival. The Mesothelioma Center also treats rare sarcomatoid mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma & Veterans FAQ
- Are military Veterans at risk for mesothelioma?
About a third of the 3,000 malignant mesothelioma diagnoses made each year affect Veterans. That’s because asbestos was widely used in almost all branches of the military from 1935 to 1975.
- Are some service members at greater risk for asbestos exposure?
Navy Veterans are at the highest risk of asbestos exposure and thus mesothelioma. Asbestos was far more prevalent in Navy shipyards and ships built by the Navy before the mid-1970s. It was mostly used in engine and boiler rooms as well as other areas below deck. But asbestos was also found in navigation rooms, sleeping quarters and mess halls.
- How were service members exposed to asbestos?
Navy Veterans who worked in shipyards, service members involved in the renovation of asbestos-containing structures or the removal of asbestos materials, and those in any branch of the military who worked as pipefitters, welders, boiler operators, building renovation and demolition workers.
- What Veteran jobs are at risk for asbestos exposure and mesothelioma?
Or workers who made or used asbestos-containing products such as
- Cement sheet
- Friction products like clutch facings and brake linings
- Am I entitled to health care benefits or compensation?
Very likely. Honorably discharged Vets who have an illness believed to be caused by asbestos exposure during military service may be entitled to disability benefits such as health care or compensation. Spouses, surviving spouses, dependent children or family caregivers of Veterans may also be eligible for benefits as well.
Military-Asbestos Superfund Sites
In 1980, Congress established the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), informally called Superfun1d, which allows the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to clean up contaminated sites and forces parties responsible for the contamination to either perform cleanups or reimburse the government for EPA-led cleanup work. The Superfund is designed to protect human health and the environment, and return the sites to productive use.
The following military bases have been designated as EPA Superfund sites where asbestos exposure may have occurred.
- Curtis Bay Coast Guard Yard
Curtis Bay Coast Guard Yard just south of downtown Baltimore, Maryland, was established in 1899 to support the U.S. Coast Guard with design, construction and the repair of ships and boats. It is the Coast Guard’s only shipbuilding and major repair facility, and is part of the Coast Guard’s core industrial base and fleet support operations.Previous activities at the yard included operation of an on-site incinerator, manufacturing operations, and ship repair and maintenance, which contaminated the soil and groundwater with hazardous materials, including asbestos. Cleanup, operation and maintenance activities are ongoing.Veterans and retirees who either worked on or were assigned to permanent duty on a Coast Guard cutter constructed prior to 1991 may have been exposed to asbestos used in building the vessel.
- George Air Force Base
George Air Force Base was established in World War II and closed in December 1992. The 5,347-acre base supported tactical fighter operations and provided training for air crews and maintenance personnel that mandated the use and disposal of non-hazardous and hazardous materials, including asbestos.A February 1989 preliminary review of the environmental requirements and concerns conducted by the Environmental Planning and Compliance Branch at George Air Force Base prior to the closing of the base found that of the 1,970 buildings on-base (including 1,641 housing units) of which 10 percent were surveyed for asbestos, “Forty percent of those facilities tested has asbestos containing materials (ACM) (80 percent nonfriable, 20 percent friable.)”EPA is continuing investigations and long-term cleanup at the site.
- Naval Weapons Station Earle
Colts Neck, New Jersey
The Naval Weapons Station Earle (NWSE) covers 11,134 acres in New Jersey. Beginning in the 1940s, the U.S. Navy has renovated, stored and maintained munitions at the station, preserving and maintaining ammunition, missile components and explosives. The base does not contain as much asbestos as other naval installations, but several buildings on the site were known to have been built with asbestos-containing materials.In 1990, the EPA designated 27 acres of concern within NWSE as a Superfund site for proposed cleanup. An investigation in this area revealed the presence of asbestos along with lead, chromium and VOCs, all of which are considered harmful to human health.
- Pensacola Naval Air Station
Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola is a 5,900-acre active U.S. Navy installation that provides facilities, service and support for the operation and maintenance of the Navy’s naval weapons and aircraft. The base has 68 hazardous sites, including a sanitary landfill on the base that from the 1950s to 1976 was used to dispose of asbestos-containing materials from building demolitions.The military has spent $102 million to clean up the hazardous sites at the Pensacola Naval Air Station and must spend another $63 million to complete the cleanup by 2031, according to the Department of Defense’s Defense Environmental Restoration Program.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
War Related Illness and Injury Study Center/Office of Public Health/Department of Veterans Affairs
Inhalation Toxicology – International Forum for Respiratory Research