Written by: Devin Golden

Military Asbestos Exposure

Military asbestos exposure is the main reason why veterans develop mesothelioma at an alarming rate. Veterans from all branches should be aware of their asbestos exposure in the military.

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Important Facts About Asbestos in the Military

  • Asbestos was widely used throughout the U.S. military. The carcinogen had a role during the 20th century in every branch. Exposure to asbestos was common until the late 1970s.
  • Veterans serving in construction and labor occupations weren’t the only people at risk of exposure. Other personnel on ships (doctors, secretaries, etc.) had secondary or direct exposure.
  • The latency period for mesothelioma is 20-50 years. This means a majority of service members are being diagnosed now.
  • Despite representing only 7% of the nation’s population, veterans make up around 33% of cases of mesothelioma.

Why Did Asbestos Exposure in the Military Happen Often?

The military depended on asbestos for decades because it’s an insulator. It was useful for protecting pipes, boilers, wires, siding, floorboards, ceiling tiles and insulation. It was also cheap and durable.

When Was Asbestos Used in the Military?

Asbestos was around before the 20th century, but it rose to prominence during the early years of the period. The military mass-produced ships, aircraft and more for wars in the first half of the century.

Asbestos reached a peak in the military due to World War II. The military continued buying and using asbestos for most of the Cold War era. They felt it was needed to maintain a powerful military fleet.

Asbestos Exposure in All Branches

None of the five branches were protected from asbestos. The appealing characteristics made it a cornerstone of the entire military’s operations.

The Navy used asbestos the most, but the Army, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard all found uses for it. Military asbestos exposure happened in every branch.

Navy Veterans

Navy veterans have the highest mesothelioma rates of all branches. This is due to the Navy using asbestos the most and Navy personnel being exposed the most. Nearly every ship built between the 1930s and 1970s contained high levels of asbestos.

The Boston VA health care system tracked the number of veterans with mesothelioma. They found 56 cases, and 28 (50%) were Navy veterans.

The hazards of asbestos were first reported in the early 20th century, but manufacturers ignored the safety concerns. The Navy continued purchasing asbestos to mass-produce ships for World War II.

Catching fire is one of the most significant risks for ships at sea. Asbestos can resist fire while protecting pipes, wires and other items around it. The U.S. government even mandated the use of asbestos materials in certain military applications because it proved to be an easy solution.

You can find asbestos on destroyers, frigates, escort carriers, minesweepers, battleships and cruisers. If you worked on these ships, you likely had military asbestos exposure. Other Navy vessels made with asbestos were:

  • Submarines
  • Transport ships
  • Cargo ships
  • Repair ships
  • Gunboats
  • Torpedo boats
  • Amphibious assault ships
  • Aircraft carriers

There was an especially large amount of asbestos in boiler rooms, pump rooms and engine rooms. Asbestos was in gaskets, floor coverings, deck tiles and cements. It was also found in sleeping quarters, wardrooms and turrets of the ships. Anywhere there was risk of fire, asbestos was present.

These materials were often sanded, which disturbed the delicate fibers. They dislodged into the air (where they’re most dangerous). Asbestos was impossible to avoid or detect for Navy crew members.

Army Veterans

Army veterans who served in the 20th century face the risk of developing mesothelioma. Asbestos materials were in military barracks because of their fire resistance.

New uses of asbestos products were banned in the 1980s, but hundreds of military areas were left with asbestos in cement, ceiling tiles and wall insulations for decades after. This “legacy asbestos” preserved the danger for Army veterans.

Soldiers who held certain occupations as part of their service were at a heightened risk. These occupations included:

  • Construction engineers
  • Plumbers
  • Firefighters
  • Electricians

Air Force Veterans

Air Force veterans were exposed to asbestos in aircrafts, barracks and more. Asbestos was used in military vehicles to protect brakes, gaskets and insulation from heat or fire damage.

The Air Force even used asbestos in air-cooling systems. Air Force mechanics were exposed frequently because of asbestos in aircraft engines.

Marine Corps Veterans

Marine Corps veterans had the combined risk of being exposed on naval vessels as well as on land. Exposure could occur occupationally, during transport (ships, aircraft and other vehicles), and also in their barracks.

A report in 2007 discussed the use of asbestos materials at Parris Island (where most marines go for boot camp). The number of old buildings with asbestos on the base became a concern.

The report laid out plans for the safe removal of asbestos and lead-containing building materials decades ago, but the issue wasn’t fully addressed until the 21st century.

Marines are susceptible to exposure due to being the first deployed to a war zone following bombing raids, which disturbs legacy asbestos in old buildings and causes airborne fibers.

Coast Guard

The branch is small, but asbestos was used for the same reasons as the Navy. The risk of fire on ships made asbestos an attractive option.

Asbestos was used in boiler rooms, pipe rooms, electrical wiring, valves, deck coating, flooring and more. Cutters, lifeboats, response and rescue boats, security boats, and long- and short-range interceptors all may have asbestos. Shipyard workers, particularly those at the Curtis Bay Coast Guard Yard in Maryland, faced military asbestos exposure.

List of Wars

Veterans deployed to combat zones in foreign countries face a unique asbestos exposure risk. Many of these locations still have asbestos-laden buildings. Veterans in the vicinity could unknowingly be exposed due to bombings or other events. This manner of exposure happened frequently during 20th and 21st century conflicts.

Men and women who served in Iraq are an example of this risk. A large amount of asbestos mined in the United States was sent to Iraq in the decades prior to the Iraq War. As the war was fought, buildings built with asbestos were destroyed, causing asbestos fibers to contaminate the oxygen in military zones.

Other foreign conflicts leading to exposure are:

  • World War II
  • Korean War
  • Vietnam War
  • Gulf War (Desert Storm)
  • Grenada
  • War in Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom)

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Military Veterans Can Get Compensation

At-Risk Jobs for Military Asbestos Exposure

Although secondary exposure to asbestos is possible, many veterans were exposed through direct contact. Navy, Army, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard veterans who repaired or built ships or motor vehicles were in the highest-risk jobs.

Other work at a heightened risk of exposure were:

  • Pipefitting
  • Shipyard work
  • Insulation work
  • Demolition
  • Manufacturing
  • Carpentry
  • Equipment building
  • Welding
  • Boilermaking

Veterans with mesothelioma can learn whether their military service caused the cancer. This information is important for accessing monthly benefits through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Learn more in our free Veterans Support Guide.

Common Questions About Military Asbestos Exposure

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How do I know if I was exposed to asbestos?

If you worked with asbestos during military service and didn’t use protective equipment, you were likely exposed. However, it’s difficult to know when you were exposed. Particles are tiny and weightless, so you won’t feel or see them. Asbestos diseases also develop over decades, making it difficult to track your past exposure.

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Which branches of the U.S. military faced asbestos exposure?

All of the U.S. military branches involved some form of exposure to asbestos. The Navy had the most, as asbestos was a prized component for building ships and submarines. Army barracks and Air Force planes also included asbestos to prevent fires from spreading.

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Which wars involved asbestos exposure for U.S. veterans?

All of the 20th century military conflicts exposed some veterans to asbestos. This exposure occurred on foreign land:

  • World War II
  • Korean War
  • Vietnam War
  • Gulf War (Desert Storm)
  • Grenada
  • War in Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom)
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Which military jobs involved working with or near asbestos?

Many of the military jobs facing asbestos exposure are the same as civilian jobs with this risk. These occupations can lead to future asbestos diseases, such as mesothelioma. Some are:

  • Pipefitting
  • Shipyard work
  • Insulation work
  • Carpentry
  • Boilermaking

Sources & Author

    1. Malignant Pleural Mesothelioma (MPM): Analysis of Military Occupation Related to Asbestos Exposure and Subsequent VA Disability Entitlements in Veterans at the Boston VA (VABHS). AVAHO Updates. Retrieved from: https://www.mdedge.com/fedprac/avaho/article/113975/oncology/malignant-pleural-mesothelioma-mpm-analysis-military?sso=true. Accessed: 02/01/2021.
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About the Writer, Devin Golden

Devin Golden is the content writer for Mesothelioma Guide. He produces mesothelioma-related content on various mediums, including the Mesothelioma Guide website and social media channels. Devin's objective is to translate complex information regarding mesothelioma into informative, easily absorbable content to help patients and their loved ones.