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. Approximately 30% of all mesothelioma cases in the U.S. each year are diagnosed in people who served in the military. Veterans from all branches of the military should be aware of their asbestos exposure so they can speak to their doctors about the health risks.

Retired LCDR Carl Jewett

Reviewed By

Retired LCDR Carl Jewett

VA-Accredited Claims Agent


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Important Facts About Asbestos in the Military

  • Asbestos was widely used throughout the U.S. military, and 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, which 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 Armed Forces Happen Often?

Every branch of the armed forces used asbestos extensively, as it depended on the material for it’s excellent insulation properties. Asbestos was used to insulate pipes, boilers, wires, floor tiles, ceiling tiles and bulkhead insulation. It was also cheap and durable, which 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.

As a result, most veterans were exposed to asbestos in the armed forces during military service, resulting in many being diagnosed with asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. However, most veterans didn’t understand the health risks associated with asbestos exposure, and most are unaware that they were even exposed to asbestos fibers.  

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 of the Armed Forces

None of the five branches of the armed forces 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 consumer of asbestos in the military. As a result, the majority of service members exposed to asbestos were Navy personnel. Ships and submarines built between the 1930s and 1970s contained high levels of asbestos. 

In a study published by the VA, between 2011 and 2016, the Boston VA healthcare 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 dust. 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 firefighting 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 firefighting 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 types of cement. It was also found in ammunition stores, gun turrets, sleeping quarters, wardrooms and even the mess decks. Anywhere there was a risk of fire, asbestos was present.

Asbestos was impossible to avoid while serving aboard a Navy ship as it was used in ships from bow to stern. In fact, many Navy veterans diagnosed with an asbestos-related 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 and boiler technicians
  • Water tenders
  • Pipefitters
  • Shipfitters
  • Machinist mates
  • Engineman
  • Electrician mates
  • Seabees

However, many Navy jobs required sailors to perform work or stand watch in the Engine Room aboard the 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 see 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 Army buildings, vehicles, aircraft and barracks because of their fire resistance and insulation qualities. In addition, the Army used asbestos in military housing. 

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 aircraft, 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.

The Air Force used asbestos 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 a smaller branch of the military, 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.

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 jobs at a heightened risk of exposure were:

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

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 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)

Video Shows Soldier Using Asbestos on Vehicle

A video surfaced five years ago showing a U.S. soldier handling an asbestos compound with his bare hands. The soldier is doing so to waterproof Jeeps during World War II, a common occurrence since vehicles needed to drive through water for the Normandy D-Day invasion.

According to the video, the military learned it could waterproof Jeeps and other vehicles in specific circumstances. The vehicles could last in 3.5 feet of water for at most six consecutive minutes. The film shows Jeeps nearly submerged yet operating as normal.

To accomplish this, military members used a flexible tube to evict water from areas that could damage the vehicle. This tube attaches to the vehicle’s intake on one end and the windshield frame on the other.

However, this tube on its own cannot protect the vehicle from water damage. That’s where asbestos comes into the picture.

Military personnel used asbestos to form a clay-like compound called Asbestos Waterproofing Compound (AWC). This compound would seal off electrical systems, battery vents, the in-vehicle fire extinguisher and other vulnerable, sensitive vehicle parts or items. Sealing off these parts also funnels the water toward the tube, where it drains from the vehicle.

Asbestos in Military Family Housing

An investigation of U.S. family military housing in 2020 found that asbestos was rampant in the houses and posed a risk to military members and their families.

The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) received a scathing evaluation of its management of government-owned and government-controlled military family housing. The DoD Office of Inspector General, which is an independent entity of the DoD, assessed the presence of numerous health risks, including asbestos.

“Unfortunately, these findings are unsurprising to me and all other veterans or current military personnel who have lived in older on-base housing,” said LCDR Carl Jewett, who served in the Navy for 24 years. “I can remember military buildings that had asbestos in the floor tiles, drywall, HVAC room and even caulk around the windows. Of course, asbestos is in on-base housing for military families.”

Congress Requests Evaluation of Military Housing Safety

In September 2018, Congress requested an evaluation of military family housing. The objective was to uncover whether military members and their families were exposed to hazards — and whether procedures were in place to identify, monitor, and mitigate these risks.

The investigation initially focused on lead-based paint. It expanded to include asbestos, among other issues like mold, radon and drinking-water quality.

Focus of Report on Foreign Military Family Housing

Military housing is separated into two groups: privatized units and government-owned or government-controlled units. Around 99% of government housing in the continental U.S. is privatized, which leaves roughly 2,000 government-owned or government-controlled units. The government also owns or controls more than 36,000 units located outside the mainland. The investigation focused mostly on those foreign-located units.

The report analyzed the health and safety management of eight military installations, which total 15,525 military family housing units:

  • U.S. Army Garrison Humphreys (Republic of Korea)
  • U.S. Army Garrison Wiesbaden (Germany)
  • Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay (Cuba)
  • Commander Fleet Activities Yokosuka (Japan)
  • Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni (Japan)
  • Kadena Air Base (Japan)
  • Spangdahlem Air Base (Germany)
  • Wright‑Patterson Air Force Base (Dayton, Ohio)

In at least five military housing installations, the investigation revealed a lack of accurate record-keeping regarding the use of asbestos-containing materials. Officials also did not keep records of the condition of these materials.

Additionally, at six of the locations, officials didn’t notify residents of asbestos’ presence in the buildings. The report states that residents may have been exposed to asbestos “without being aware of the hazard.”

“This issue doesn’t just affect service members,” Carl said. “It has an impact on their loved ones, the people who also inhabit these housing units: wives and husbands; children; even elderly parents. They’re all essentially living inside an asbestos box, and if they unintentionally disturb any materials that contain asbestos, they could inhale or swallow loose fibers and not have a clue.”

Video Shows Soldier Using Asbestos on Vehicle

The DoD intends to provide adequate shelter and residential space to military families staying in government-owned or government-controlled housing. These policies explicitly require the DoD and various military branches to:

  • Provide affordable, quality housing that reflects “contemporary community living standards”
  • Supply well-maintained, structurally sound and hazard-free housing
  • Effectively and cost-efficiently manage the housing units to maintain their condition

These standards were not met at most of the locations investigated. The DoD Office of the Inspector General revealed flawed guidelines and a lack of oversight regarding the department’s management of military housing.

“This has been an issue for decades,” Carl said, “and it remains one for current and future military personnel due to the military not maintaining or upgrading older housing.”

Frequently Asked 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
  • Vietnam War
  • Grenada
  • Korean War
  • Gulf War (Desert Storm)
  • 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
  • HVAC
  • Demolition
  • Shingle and siding work
  • Drywall and mudding
  • Flooring work

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.
    2. Evaluation of the DoD’s Management of Health and Safety Hazards in Government-Owned and Government-Controlled Military Family Housing. Department of Defense Office of Inspector General. Retrieved from:
      https://www.dodig.mil/reports.html/Article/2174435/evaluation-of-the-dods-management-of-health-and-safety-hazards-in-government-ow/. Accessed: 05/13/2020.
Devin Golden

About the Writer, Devin Golden

Devin Golden is a 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.