Until the late 1970s, the United States military used significant amounts of asbestos. These carcinogenic fibers contaminated many military-owned shipyards, hangars and bases. The government stopped using asbestos-containing products around the end of the Vietnam War, but they had already exposed thousands of men and women to the carcinogenic fibers.
Service-connected asbestos exposure has led a disproportionately high number of veterans to develop asbestos-related diseases. Up to 30 percent of all mesothelioma patients are veterans, and numerous veterans have developed different asbestos-related diseases. Veterans who worked as pipefitters, laggers, boiler operators or demolition specialists were especially likely to develop these conditions.
The military rarely uses asbestos products today. The Department of Defense authorized the disposal of 9,770 tons of chrysotile asbestos, 30,900 tons of amosite asbestos and 33 tons of crocidolite asbestos from their stockpile. They also implemented special handling procedures for asbestos-containing materials. However, asbestos-related diseases are still a concern for current armed forces members.
If old asbestos products that still remain in place become friable, they pose an exposure risk. Because of this risk, the military instructs veterans to be careful with older products and to report any asbestos threats to their supervising officer.
Where the Military Used Asbestos
Each branch of the military used asbestos. The Navy was the heaviest consumer of the fibers. They required asbestos insulation on all of their newly commissioned ships. However, the Army, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard also used asbestos in several different applications.
Military aircraft often contained asbestos parts in their cooling systems, while tanks and other vehicles contained asbestos brakes and friction products. The military also used asbestos-reinforced packings, gaskets, lagging cloth, cement and plastics.
Military bases were also home to asbestos. Many bases contained asbestos tiles, adhesives, shingles and wallboard. Facilities outside of the U.S. also contained asbestos. For example, several Army facilities in Germany contained crocidolite-contaminated corrugated roofing products.
These asbestos-containing products did not pose exposure threats when they were in good condition, but combat or construction may have disturbed the product and released asbestos fibers into the air. If anybody inhaled or ingested these airborne fibers, they then faced an elevated risk for several asbestos-related diseases.
Asbestos-Related Diseases that Veterans Face
The most common asbestos-related illnesses include mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestos cancer. However, asbestos can cause several other illnesses, such as:
- Laryngeal cancer
- Ovarian cancer
- Pleural plaques
- Pleural effusions
- Pleural scarring
These diseases typically arise several decades after exposure occurs. Once the disease is fully formed within the body, it may take several more months for symptoms such as chest pain, coughing or difficulty breathing to appear. That means that veterans who came into contact with asbestos during the 1960s and ‘70s may just now be noticing symptoms of asbestos-related diseases.
How Veterans can Alleviate these Asbestos-Related Disease Concerns
Veterans who already inhaled asbestos cannot undo the damage that has already occurred inside their body. However, veterans can use their knowledge of asbestos-related diseases to carefully monitor their health for signs of these conditions.
Asbestos-related disease screenings are highly recommended for veterans. These tests can detect abnormal changes in the body before they develop into a full-blown illness. For many veterans, these tests are included as part of their health care benefits.
Veterans can also apply for additional benefits if they develop an asbestos-related condition. The government offers pension and disability pay programs for veterans who become ill from service-connected exposure. While these resources can help alleviate financial concerns, the paperwork can be daunting. The retired veterans who work with The Mesothelioma Center’s Veterans Assistance Program can help simplify the application process.
The Mesothelioma Center can also help veterans schedule appointments with leading specialists across the nation. They can even help connect patients with renowned doctors from VA hospitals, such as Dr. Avi Leventhal at the VA Boston Healthcare System.
For more information please visit the Mesothelioma Center’s website.
Author bio: Faith Franz researches and writes about health-related issues for The Mesothelioma Center. One of her focuses is living with cancer.