Mesothelioma and U.S. Veterans

The U.S. military was one of the largest users of asbestos during the 20th century. As a result, veterans face an increased risk of developing mesothelioma (a rare cancer caused by asbestos exposure).

The back of a veteran and his jacket as he stares out at a naval military vessel.

Veterans and Mesothelioma

Today, nearly 30 percent of all mesothelioma lawsuits are filed by veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces annually. Mesothelioma, a fairly uncommon form of cancer linked to asbestos exposure, is only diagnosed in about 3,000 new people each year. Because the military used so much asbestos in its buildings, vehicles, and tools, a significant portion of these cases includes veterans of the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and the Coast Guard.

Usually, the latency period between exposure to toxic asbestos dust and onset of cancer symptoms is about 38.4 years. Subsequently, many of the veterans being diagnosed with mesothelioma today were first exposed to airborne carcinogens decades earlier.

Veterans of World War II generally have the highest risk for asbestos-related cancers, due to the large amounts of the material used by every branch. Rates of mesothelioma reached a critical high point from the 1970s to the 1990s and have only leveled off slightly since that time. Consequently, researchers suggest that many servicemembers still face significantly higher risks from asbestos compared to the general population.

How Were Veterans Exposed to Asbestos?

In most cases, veterans were exposed to dangerous, airborne asbestos particles while working in certain job settings and/or locations during their time in service. A maintenance mechanic, for instance, may have inhaled asbestos dust from grinding machine components. Likewise, veterans who worked on or near shipyards face the same risk.

Unfortunately, the use of asbestos in military buildings, barracks, dining halls, and more contributed to many toxic exposures between 1930 and 1980. As such, active duty, reserve, and National Guard members were put at risk of developing long-term, asbestos-related diseases.

Military careers with historically high rates of asbestos exposure and disease include:

  • Brake mechanics
  • Carpentry/craftsmen
  • Construction
  • Demolition workers
  • Electricians
  • Insulators
  • Longshoremen
  • Machine maintenance
  • Milling
  • Petroleum and chemical workers
  • Pipefitters
  • Plumbers
  • Powerhouse and utility workers
  • Navy personnel
  • Shipyard workers
  • Vehicle repair

Veterans of foreign wars are also at high risk for respiratory problems related to their military service. Because asbestos was widely used all over the world, areas of heavy construction and structural damage can release large amounts of asbestos particles into the air. Soldiers in these areas may have inhaled or swallowed the toxic dust. Over time, they may notice a change in their ability to breathe, chest pain, and fatigue.

If you served in the following areas, you may also be at risk of contact with airborne asbestos:

  • Afghanistan
  • Iraq
  • Korea
  • Vietnam

U.S. Army

In the twentieth century, a significant portion of buildings, ground transportation, and aircraft built for the U.S. Army contained asbestos. Because of its fire-resistant nature, the mineral was used as insulation and incorporated into cement, flooring, roofing, mastics, plumbing, and more. It was also used to line vehicle gaskets and brake systems.

While the Army closed many asbestos-contaminated buildings in the 1990s, those that remained open underwent repairs and remodeling. When not handled correctly, these activities pose a risk of exposing a new generation of soldiers to the mineral’s carcinogenic effects.

Army veterans who worked in the following fields have a higher risk of developing mesothelioma:

  • Aircraft Mechanic
  • Artilleryman
  • Infantryman
  • Vehicle Mechanic

United States Air Force (USAF)

During World Wars I and II, the Air Force was part of the U.S. Army. Then, the branch expanded rapidly during World War II into its own department in 1947. During the same time, asbestos was used extensively on bases and in military vehicles and aircraft. Asbestos-laden materials were used in aircraft brake systems, engine valves, and gaskets. As a result, many Airmen were continuously exposed to high levels of carcinogenic material.

Air Force veterans most at risk of developing mesothelioma may have worked in the fields of:

  • Aircraft Handler
  • Aircraft Mechanic
  • Electrical Systems Specialist
  • Environmental Systems Specialist
  • Fire Control Technician
  • Metalsmith

Navy and Coast Guard

More so than the other branches, Navy and Coast Guard veterans face an especially heightened risk of developing mesothelioma. According to a 1979 letter from the Department of the Navy, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations Ships, asbestos was so commonly used in the construction of vessels that it was “nearly impossible to build a Navy ship free of the mineral.”

When crew members needed to repair contaminated areas of Navy and Coast Guard vessels, many people inadvertently released crumbled asbestos fibers into the air. The poor ventilation of ships and submarines resulted in higher concentrations of inhalable asbestos.

Navy and Coast Guard veterans most at risk of developing long-term occupational diseases:

  • Boatswain’s Mate
  • Damage Controlman
  • Electrician’s Mate
  • Fire Control Technician
  • Gunner’s Mate
  • Hull Maintenance Technician
  • Machinery Repairman
  • Machinist’s Mate
  • Marine Inspectors
  • Metalsmith
  • Pipefitter
  • Radioman
  • Seabee
  • Water Tender
  • Welder

Marine Corps

Many Marines experienced toxic exposure to dust and chemicals on Navy ships and Navy shipyards. On many bases and outposts, dining halls, barracks, and boiler and engine rooms all contained asbestos.

Marine Corps veterans most at risk of developing mesothelioma include:

  • Marines on Navy Ships
  • Mechanics

Secondhand Exposure Risk to Military Families

Secondhand exposure to asbestos occurs most often when an individual carries the dust home on clothes, shoes, hair, and skin. At home, the dust particles were transferred to the carpet, furniture, or to another person through direct contact. Over time, family members experienced increasing amounts of toxic exposure.

Also known as secondary or indirect exposure, it can be just as dangerous as working with asbestos directly. There is no safe level of asbestos exposure and has the potential to cause illnesses like mesothelioma and asbestosis.

Financial and Medical Benefits for Veterans

Any veteran who was honorably discharged from the military may be eligible for veterans benefits. These include disability benefits, health care, compensation for medical expenses, and survivor benefits for family members (also called dependency or indemnity compensation).

Servicemen and women who developed mesothelioma (or a related health problem) as a result of asbestos exposure can apply for these benefits directly through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The organization determines eligibility on an individual basis.

Filing for Disability Benefits

VA disability benefits provide both health care and monetary compensation for service-related illnesses and injuries. To obtain benefits, you’ll need a current diagnosis of an asbestos-related disease recognized by the VA, your service records with a list of jobs or specialties, and a statement from a doctor linking your time in service to the health problem.

Options for filing a VA benefits claim:

  • Apply online through eBenefits
  • Contact a Veterans Service Organization or VA claims agent for assistance
  • Visit a VA regional benefit office in your area

Compensation for Victims

Many veterans are also eligible for additional financial compensation from asbestos trust funds, personal injury cases, or wrongful death lawsuits. These will be filed against the asbestos companies and not against the U.S. military or VA.

If you’re a veteran or the family member of a former servicemember diagnosed with mesothelioma or asbestosis, connect with a qualified mesothelioma attorney who will be able to walk you through your legal options.

Author: Destiny Bezrutczyk – Last Edited: December 19, 2022


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