Veterans and Asbestos

Many veterans develop mesothelioma as a result of asbestos exposure during their military service. Navy veterans face the highest risk, but veterans from all branches should be aware of asbestos exposure.

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Written by LCDR Carl Jewett

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Why Is Asbestos so Common in the Military?

The military depended on asbestos for decades because of its insulating properties. It was convenient for construction and manufacturing applications. Veterans working in construction and shipyard jobs for the military had a high risk of exposure.

Despite representing only 7% of the nation’s population, veterans make up more than 30% of the cases of mesothelioma in the nation.

What Veterans Need to Know About Asbestos

Asbestos Widely Used in Military

Asbestos had a role during the 20th century in every branch of the military. Exposure to asbestos was extremely common until the late 1970s.

Secondary Exposure Risks

Veterans serving in construction and labor occupations weren’t the only people at risk of asbestos exposure. Other personnel (doctors, secretaries, etc.) had secondary exposure or direct exposure if serving on a ship.

All Veterans Have Risk of Asbestos Exposure

Exposure was unavoidable for these brave men and women who put our safety and comfort before their own. The latency period for mesothelioma is 20-50 years, meaning a majority of these service members are being diagnosed now.

Navy Veterans

Navy veterans have the highest mesothelioma risk of all branches. They were exposed to asbestos more than any other branch. Nearly every ship built between the 1930s and 1970s contained high levels of asbestos.

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, and asbestos can resist fire and protect 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 to fireproofing and insulation issues on naval vessels.

Common vessels that contained asbestos were:

  • Battleships
  • Submarines
  • Escort patrol craft
  • Transport ships
  • Cargo ships
  • Repair ships
  • Gunboats
  • Torpedo boats
  • Frigates
  • Minesweepers
  • Amphibious assault ships
  • Cruisers
  • Destroyers
  • Aircraft carriers

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

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

Army Veterans

Army veterans who served in the 20th century also 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 the 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 also at 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

Marines 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, 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.

List of Wars

Veterans deployed to combat zones in foreign countries face a unique asbestos exposure risk. Many of these countries had a bevy of asbestos-laden buildings. Veterans in the vicinity could have unknowingly been exposed.

Men and women who served in Iraq are one group facing 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)

At-Risk Jobs

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

Other work at a heightened risk of exposure were:

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

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.

Sources & Author

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About the Writer, Retired LCDR Carl Jewett, VA Claims Agent

LCDR Carl Jewett is a retired Naval Officer who serves as the Veterans Department Director and Patient Services Director at Mesothelioma Guide. He is a VA-Accredited Claims Agent with more than 10 years of experience filing asbestos-related VA claims. He has helped over 1300 veterans who have been diagnosed with asbestos-related illnesses get approved for VA Disability Compensation, VA Pension, and/or Aid & Attendance benefits. Because veteran’s are also entitled to compensation through the legal system, Carl has communicated with many mesothelioma law firms across the country. He has gained extensive knowledge of asbestos trust funds, mesothelioma lawsuits, settlements, and the claims process. He provides both veterans and civilians with information regarding their legal options.