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 and their families being exposed to asbestos. Asbestos exposure during military service is the primary reason there are so many veterans with mesothelioma. Veterans from all military branches 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

Retired LCDR Carl Jewett

Reviewed By

Retired LCDR Carl Jewett

VA-Accredited Claims Agent


jump to icon


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 ship personnel (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 cancer (time between initial exposure and experiencing symptoms) is 20-45+ years. This means many service members are only now being diagnosed.
  • Despite representing only 7% of the nation’s population, U.S. military veterans make up around 30% of all cases of mesothelioma diagnosed each year.

Military Veterans Asbestos Exposure: Causes and Risk Factors

Every branch of the armed forces used asbestos extensively, as it depended on the substance for its excellent insulation and durable properties. Asbestos was also relatively cheap to buy for manufacturing purposes, another quality that made the substance appealing.

Asbestos was used to insulate pipes, boilers, wires, floor tiles, ceiling tiles, bulkhead insulation and much more. It was an ideal material for brake linings, clutches and gaskets. Similarly, its high resistance to heat made it the go-to material for fireproofing.

These qualities led to the use of asbestos to build ships, barracks, and other military structures, exposing veterans across all military branches. Some military jobs were more risky than others, but the presence of asbestos on ships, aircraft, and military buildings meant anyone could be exposed to the sharp, microscopic fibers.

As a result, most veterans were exposed to asbestos during their military service, resulting in many being diagnosed with asbestos-related health conditions, such as asbestosis, lung cancer and the rare and aggressive cancer known as mesothelioma.

The danger of asbestos and mesothelioma is that this cancer has a long latency period, meaning it takes decades to develop and present symptoms, so many people who were exposed to asbestos in the 1970s may have been recently diagnosed or just began experiencing symptoms.

Most veterans didn’t understand the health risks associated with asbestos exposure, and most are unaware that they were exposed to the harmful substance. As a veteran of the United States military, it is crucial to understand the long-term health risks as a result of your military asbestos exposure.

When Was Asbestos Used in the Military?

Asbestos was used to manufacture various products and materials in the U.S. before the 20th century, but it rose to prominence in the U.S. military during the Second World War. The military used tons of asbestos to mass-produce ships, aircraft and more as the war effort ramped up.

Consequently, the use of asbestos in the military peaked 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. This preserved the significant role of asbestos in the military until the 1980s when the military began phasing out asbestos due to safer alternatives.

Asbestos Exposure in All Branches of the Armed Forces

All five branches of the armed forces used asbestos in various ways. The appealing heat-resistant and durable characteristics made it the military’s go-to material for insulation and fire protection applications.

The widespread use of asbestos in the military meant the substance could be found in aircraft, ships, vehicles, housing and more. Subsequently, asbestos was built into various components within each of these to improve insulation and heat resistance.

The hazards of asbestos were first reported in the early 20th century, but manufacturers ignored the safety concerns and continued selling asbestos to the military without providing any warnings about the dangers of breathing in or ingesting asbestos dust. Without knowledge of the health risks of asbestos, the military continued purchasing asbestos in mass quantities to keep up with the demand for ships, aircraft, weapons and vehicles for World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and well into the late 1970s.

Asbestos is a fibrous mineral that releases sharp fibers when disturbed. Any work on systems or parts insulated with asbestos releases these microscopic fibers into the air. Airborne asbestos fibers can be breathed in or ingested (swallowed) and become lodged in the thin linings of the lungs and/or digestive tract. If the fibers become lodged, they can cause irritation and cell mutation and cause diseases like mesothelioma, lung cancer, gastrointestinal cancer, ovarian cancer and more.

The Navy was the primary consumer of asbestos due to shipbuilding, but the Army, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard found uses for it. Military asbestos exposure happened in every branch throughout the 20th century, leaving millions of veterans and their families at risk of developing serious health conditions decades after their military service.

Asbestos Exposure for Navy Veterans

U.S. Navy veterans have the highest mesothelioma rates of all the branches. At one point, the U.S. government mandated the use of asbestos in certain Navy applications as it was a cheap and easy solution for insulation and fireproof needs, which led to the Navy being the primary military consumer of asbestos. As a result, the majority of service members exposed to asbestos were Navy personnel.

Navy ships and submarines built between the 1930s and 1970s contained high levels of asbestos. The substance is present on outdated aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, frigates, escort carriers, minesweepers, battleships and submarines. If you worked on any of these ships, you were likely exposed to asbestos in the military. 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

Asbestos was used on Navy ships to fireproof ship compartments and firefighting suits. The substance was also used to insulate:

  • Steam pipes
  • Steam drains
  • Lube oil heat exchangers
  • High-pressure air compressors
  • Boiler rooms
  • Pump rooms
  • Engine rooms
  • Gaskets
  • Deck plates
  • Bulkheads
  • Cements
  • Ammunition stores
  • Gun turrets
  • Sleeping quarters
  • Wardrooms
  • Mess decks

For more information on asbestos-containing ships, search our database of ships to determine if your specific ship contained asbestos.

Often, sailors were required to work or stand watch in the ship’s engine room, which contained high levels of asbestos due to heavy insulation requirements. In some cases, sailors with non-engineering jobs who may have never worked in the engine room were still exposed to asbestos because of the high volume of asbestos insulation on the ship. Non-engineering sailors may have also been exposed to asbestos during an overhaul or shipyard availability period.

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

Army Veterans

U.S. Army veterans who served in the 20th century also face the risk of developing mesothelioma. Asbestos materials were used in Army buildings, vehicles, aircraft, barracks and military housing due to the substance’s fire resistance and insulation qualities.

Despite the restrictions on asbestos in the late 1980s, hundreds of military areas were left with legacy asbestos in pipe insulation, cement, floor tiles, ceiling tiles, wall insulation and more. This leftover asbestos still posed a health threat for Army soldiers and veterans.

Soldiers who held certain jobs during their service were at a heightened risk of asbestos exposure. For instance, 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. Other high-risk Army jobs included:

  • Construction engineers
  • Plumbers
  • Firefighters
  • Electricians
  • HVAC technicians

Air Force Veterans

U.S. 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 manufactured with asbestos. Air Force mechanics were exposed when performing maintenance on aircraft engines, brakes, fuselage insulation, electronic systems and other components.

The Air Force used asbestos in military vehicles to protect brakes, clutches and gaskets from the high heat produced in the vehicle’s engine and when applying the brakes. The Air Force also used asbestos in heating systems.

Marine Corps Veterans

U.S. Marine Corps veterans had the combined risk of being exposed on naval vessels as well as on land. Asbestos exposure could occur during transport while on ships, aircraft, other vehicles and in barracks. There was also a risk of exposure 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 on the base containing asbestos became a concern. The report detailed plans for the safe removal of asbestos and lead-containing building materials that were drawn up decades ago, but the issue wasn’t fully addressed until the 21st century.

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

Coast Guard

U.S. Coast Guard is the smallest of the five military branches, but asbestos was used in the same applications as the Navy. Asbestos was an appealing solution for insulation requirements and to decrease the high risk of fire on Coast Guard cutters.

Asbestos use in the Coast Guard included:

  • Cutters
  • Lifeboats
  • Response and rescue boats
  • Long- and short-range interceptors
  • Boiler rooms
  • Pipe rooms
  • Electrical wiring
  • Valves
  • Deck coating
  • Flooring

Coast Guard shipyard workers, particularly those at the Curtis Bay Coast Guard Yard in Maryland, faced even greater exposure risk as they were the ones constructing these asbestos-containing vessels and components.

At-Risk Jobs for Military Asbestos Exposure

Many veterans were exposed through direct contact with asbestos products and materials while on active duty. Navy, Army, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard veterans who repaired or built ships or motor vehicles worked the highest-risk jobs for asbestos exposure and asbestos-related diseases, such as mesothelioma.

Other jobs at a high risk of asbestos exposure were:

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

Asbestos Exposure in Wartime Periods

Veterans deployed to combat zones in foreign countries, especially Third World Countries, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, face a unique asbestos exposure risk. Many of these locations still have asbestos-containing buildings due to their lack of industrial advancements or hazardous substance regulations.

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.

Veterans who served overseas in these combat zones and near or inside asbestos-containing buildings could unknowingly be exposed due to bombings or other events that caused damage and released asbestos into the air. This frequently occurred during 20th and 21st century conflicts.

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)

Veterans with mesothelioma should learn whether their military service caused their cancer, as this information is important for accessing monthly benefits through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. To learn more about your military service and the connection to asbestos exposure, connect with our veterans patient advocate, retired LCDR Carl Jewett.

Video Shows Soldier Using Asbestos on Vehicle

A video surfaced on Youtube showing a U.S. soldier handling an asbestos compound with his bare hands to waterproof Jeeps during World War II, which was a common occurrence as vehicles needed to drive through water for the Normandy D-Day invasion.

Handling asbestos without proper protective equipment is extremely dangerous as it can lead to serious health conditions, like mesothelioma, lung cancer or asbestosis. However, during the 20th century, military members did not know that asbestos was dangerous at all.

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 up to 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, on its own, this tube cannot protect the vehicle from water damage, which is why the soldier is handling asbestos directly.

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

In September 2018, U.S. Congress requested a risk evaluation of military family housing. The objective was to uncover whether military members and their families were being exposed to hazards and whether procedures were in place to identify, monitor, and mitigate these risks. The investigation initially focused on lead-based paint and later expanded to include asbestos, mold, radon and drinking water quality.

In 2020, the investigation found that asbestos was rampant in the houses and posed a risk to military members and their families.

“This has been an issue for decades,” said LCDR Carl Jewett, who served in the Navy for 24 years, “and it remains an issue for current and future military personnel due to the military not maintaining or upgrading older housing.”

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 not surprising to me and all other veterans or current military personnel who have lived in older on-base housing,” Carl said. “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.”

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 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 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 risk evaluation investigation revealed a lack of 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 did not notify residents about the presence of asbestos 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.”

Frequently Asked Questions About Military Asbestos Exposure

blue box icon

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 to asbestos. 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.

blue box icon

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.

blue box icon

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)
blue box icon

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
    • Ceiling tile work
    • Vehicle maintenance and repair
    • Construction

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 the senior 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.