Can Veterans Get Asbestos Poisoning?

Army Soldier with Arms Crossed.

Can Veterans Get Asbestos Poisoning From Military Service?

Like lead and carbon monoxide, asbestos is a type of carcinogen (a cancer-causing substance that may lead to illness and death). Veterans who served between the 1940s and 1990s have a significant risk of asbestos poisoning. In fact: one in three diagnoses of asbestos-caused cancers (primarily mesothelioma) is a U.S. military vet.

All branches of the military used asbestos to fireproof machine parts in aviation and automobiles. In 1979, the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations wrote, “there [were] so many common uses of asbestos that it [was] nearly impossible to build a Navy ship free of the mineral.”

Working on a Naval or Coast Guard shipyard before the 1980s significantly increases a veteran’s risk for asbestos poisoning.

Before 1989, and new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations, soldiers could be exposed to asbestos and later get asbestos poisoning from jobs like:

  • Automotive mechanic and tech
  • Aviation mechanic and tech
  • Demolition and construction
  • Electrician
  • Firefighter
  • Painter
  • Pipe and boiler maintenance
  • Plumber
  • Shipbuilding

How Long Does Asbestos Related Diseases Take to Develop?

Unlike other types of poisoning, asbestos poisoning takes years to develop. Often, the tiny fibers hang in the air for days before someone inhales them. Asbestos cannot be removed from the body once it’s inhaled or swallowed. However, it does not cause any immediate symptoms.

Usually, the latency period for asbestos-caused diseases lasts between 10 to 40 years. Consequently, the average age of people diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma is 72 (though rates of mesothelioma are rising among people under 65). This typically includes retired workers and veterans.

Many asbestos-related illnesses cause painful health complications. Sometimes, growing tumors make it too difficult to work or take care of the usual responsibilities. Treatment at an accredited cancer center is the best option for pain relief.

Signs and Symptoms of Asbestos Poisoning

Signs of asbestos poisoning may not show any symptoms for years or decades after asbestos exposure. In most cases, asbestos poisoning symptoms depend on the location of the damage. For example, pleural mesotheliomas in the chest often cause shortness of breath. Meanwhile, peritoneal mesotheliomas in the abdomen usually cause swelling of the gut.

See a doctor if you’ve worked in a job at risk of asbestos exposure and have any of the following symptoms:

  • Blood in mucus
  • Chest pain
  • Fatigue
  • Losing weight without trying
  • Loss of appetite
  • Persistent and worsening cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Swelling in face or neck
  • Trouble swallowing

Treatment for Asbestos Related Diseases

Treatment for asbestos poisoning is often palliative (intended to help the patient manage painful side effects of disease) but depends on the diagnosis. Asbestos-caused diseases include:

  • Asbestosis
  • Colon cancer
  • Lung cancer
  • Mesotheliomas
  • Pleural effusions
  • Pleural plaques

Asbestos poisoning treatment may include surgery (such as removing fluid buildup) or cancer-killing procedures (such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy).