Written by: Devin Golden

Military Asbestos Exposure

The military’s extensive use of asbestos throughout most of the 20th century resulted in millions of military members being exposed to asbestos. Asbestos exposure during military service is the main reason why there are so many veterans with mesothelioma. Approximately 30% of all mesothelioma diagnoses in the United States each year are diagnosed in people who served in the military. Veterans from all branches of the military should be cognizant of their asbestos exposure in order to speak to their doctors about it, and to ensure they are aware of what symptoms to look for.

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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 1990s.
  • All branches of the military used asbestos or asbestos containing parts in ships, vehicles, aircraft and buildings. This led to high rates of veterans with mesothelioma
  • Navy veterans serving in engine rooms and boiler rooms weren’t the only sailors at risk of exposure. Other personnel on ships (Quartermasters, Boatswain's Mates, Yeoman, etc.) also had secondary or even direct exposure.
  • According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) the latency period for mesothelioma is 20-45+ years after initial exposure. This means that many service members are only now being diagnosed.
  • Despite representing only 7% of the nation’s population, U.S. veterans make up around 30% of all cases of mesothelioma

Why Did Asbestos Exposure in the Military Happen Often?

The military depended on asbestos for decades because it has excellent insulation properties. It was used to insulate pipes, boilers, wires, floor tiles, ceiling tiles and bulkhead insulation. It was also cheap and durable. This made it an ideal material for brake linings, clutches and gaskets. Similarly, its high resistance to heat made it the go-to material for fireproofing.

When Was Asbestos Used in the Military?

Asbestos was around before the 20th century, but it rose to prominence during the second World War. The military mass-produced ships, aircraft and more as the war effort ramped up. 

Consequently, asbestos reached a peak in the military in the 1940s. The military continued buying and using asbestos for most of the Cold War, as it was considered a necessity in order 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.

Asbestos fibers are microscopic but extremely resistant to fire and most chemicals. Because of its strength and resistance to heat, it was used extensively in insulating and fireproofing materials.

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 because the Navy was the primary military consumer of asbestos and as a result, the majority of service members exposed to asbestos were in the Navy. Every ship built between the 1930s and 1970s contained high levels of asbestos.

Between 2011 and 2016, the Boston VA health care system tracked the number of veterans treated with malignant pleural mesothelioma. They found that 28 of the 56 cases (50%) were Navy veterans.

The hazards of asbestos were first reported in the early 20th century, but manufacturers ignored the safety concerns and continued selling asbestos to the Navy without providing any warnings about the dangers of breathing or ingesting asbestos. As such, the Navy continued purchasing asbestos in mass quantities for use in Navy ships from World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam War and well into the late 1970s.

All Navy sailors are taught fire fighting techniques because fire is one of the most significant risks for ships at sea. Asbestos is extremely fire resistant, and was used to prevent fires from spreading from one compartment to another. Asbestos was also used in fire fighting suits to protect sailors from the heat produced by onboard fires.

Asbestos was also the material used whenever systems containing hot gasses or liquids needed to be insulated, such as steam pipes, lube oil heat exchangers or high pressure air compressors. And because Navy ships contain thousands of feet of piping, it means that asbestos insulation (called asbestos lagging) could be found in nearly every compartment of the ship.

Asbestos use in the Navy was not only prevalent, but the U.S. government even mandated the use of asbestos materials in certain Navy applications because it proved to be a cheap and easy solution when insulation and fireproofing were required.

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

  • Transport ships
  • Cargo ships
  • Repair ships
  • Gunboats
  • Torpedo boats
  • Amphibious assault ships
  • Tugs
  • Floating Drydocks
  • Most other auxiliary ships

There was an especially large amount of asbestos in boiler rooms, pump rooms and engine rooms. Asbestos was used in gaskets, floor coverings, deck tiles and cements. It was also found in ammunition stores, gun turrets, sleeping quarters, wardrooms and even the mess decks. Anywhere there was risk of fire, asbestos was present. Asbestos was impossible to avoid while serving aboard a Navy ship. In fact, many Navy veterans diagnosed with an asbestos disease are unaware that they were most likely exposed to asbestos while serving on board Navy vessels. 

Asbestos is a fibrous mineral that releases asbestos fibers when disturbed. Any work on systems insulated with asbestos releases these fibers into the air. Airborne asbestos fibers are the most dangerous, as it is through the air that they can be breathed in or ingested. Those fibers can then lodge in the lungs and/or digestive tract where they can go on to cause cancers like mesothelioma, lung cancer and GI Tract cancers.

Navy veterans with the following ratings were most at risk for exposure to asbestos in the Navy:

  • Boilerman
  • Water Tenders
  • Pipefitters
  • Shipfitters
  • Machinist Mates
  • Engineman
  • Electricians Mates
  • Seabees

However, many Navy jobs required sailors to perform work or stand watch in the Engine Room aboard ship.  In fact, many sailors with non-engineering jobs, who may have never stepped foot inside the engine room, were exposed because of asbestos insulation used throughout the ship. They may have also been exposed to asbestos during an overhaul or shipyard availability period. Shipyard workers often performed equipment removal and replacement that involved asbestos work, thus exposing almost everyone onboard. 

To search for your ship to determine if it contained asbestos, click here to search our database of ships containing asbestos.

Army Veterans

Army veterans who served in the 20th century also face the risk of developing mesothelioma. Asbestos materials were used in military vehicles, aircraft and barracks because of their fire resistance and insulation qualities.

New uses of asbestos products were banned in the 1980s, but hundreds of military areas were left with asbestos in pipe insulation, cement, floor tiles, ceiling tiles and wall insulation. 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
  • HVAC technicians

However, the list doesn’t stop there. Infantrymen and Artillerymen were also exposed when using asbestos insulated gloves to change out hot machine gun barrels and when handling expended hot artillery shells.

Air Force Veterans

Air Force veterans were exposed to asbestos in aircrafts, vehicles, barracks and more. Aircraft were fireproofed with asbestos and contained many other insulation parts that were also fabricated from asbestos. Air Force mechanics were exposed when performing maintenance on aircraft engines, brakes, fuselage insulation and even electronic systems.

Asbestos was used in military vehicles to protect brakes, clutches and gaskets from the high heat produced in braking and in the vehicle’s engine. The Air Force even used asbestos in heating systems.

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 and when performing maintenance on Marine Corps vehicles.

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 causing airborne asbestos fibers.

Coast Guard

Coast Guard is small, but asbestos was used for the same reasons as the Navy. The risk of fire on Coast Guard cutters 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 had asbestos. Shipyard workers, particularly those at the Curtis Bay Coast Guard Yard in Maryland, faced even greater exposure risk. 

Asbestos Exposure in Wartime Periods

Veterans deployed to combat zones in foreign countries face a unique asbestos exposure risk. Many of these locations still have asbestos containing buildings. Veterans in the vicinity could unknowingly be exposed due to bombings or other events that released the asbestos into the air. 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 air 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)

At-Risk Jobs for Military Asbestos Exposure

Although secondary exposure to asbestos is common, 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
  • Mechanical work
  • Electrical work
  • Demolition
  • Manufacturing
  • Carpentry
  • Equipment building
  • Welding
  • Boilermaking
  • Welding

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 your 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 unless the air is densely filled with them. Asbestos diseases also develop over decades, making it difficult to pinpoint exactly when you were exposed.

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

Veterans from all of the U.S. military branches incurred some risk of exposure to asbestos. Veterans of the Navy and Coast Guard had the most risk of exposure, as asbestos was relied on heavily for building ships, cutters and submarines. Army, Marine Corps, and Air Force planes, vehicles and barracks also contained asbestos.

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

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

  • 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 at risk of asbestos exposure are the same as similar civilian jobs. These occupations can lead to future asbestos diseases, such as mesothelioma. Some jobs at risk of exposure include:

  • 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.