Why Are Veterans at Risk of Developing Mesothelioma?
Mesothelioma is a rare type of cancer that affects the mesothelium, or the lining of the chest and abdominal cavities. It is caused by exposure to asbestos, a toxic mineral substance known for its durable, fire-resistant nature. The disease often doesn’t develop for years or even decades after the exposure.
Asbestos usage peaked during World War II. The military relied heavily on asbestos, and it found its way onto ships and submarines, aircraft, barracks, and weapons rooms. Asbestos helped to reduce fires onboard Navy vessels and served as insulation aboard ships and submarines.
As a result, veterans account for nearly 30 percent of all mesothelioma lawsuits annually. Luckily, there are resources available to assist veterans with mesothelioma and their families find quality treatment and support, as well as financial compensation and legal help.
Veterans and Mesothelioma
As mentioned above, mesothelioma is a very rare condition that is caused by exposure to asbestos. Many service members unknowingly faced prolonged exposure to the toxic mineral during their time in the service.
Asbestos fibers may enter the body when they are inhaled or ingested. Once inside, the microscopic fibers can become lodged in the lining of the lungs, abdomen, or even the heart. Over time, this can result in the development of pleural, peritoneal, or pericardial mesothelioma, respectively. Common symptoms of the disease include coughing, fatigue, chest or abdominal pain, and weight loss, though each form of the disease comes with its own set of symptoms.
If you experience symptoms, it is crucial that you speak with your doctor right away. Inform your healthcare provider that you may have been exposed to asbestos so that they know to consider mesothelioma as they enter into the diagnostic process. Mesothelioma can be difficult to diagnose, as its symptoms often resemble those of less severe conditions, such as pneumonia.
Where Was I Exposed to Asbestos?
People who served in the United States military between 1940 and 1980 have a heightened risk of developing health problems due to asbestos exposure. However, veterans who served more recently are also at risk, as it took years for the military to remove or replace asbestos products. Veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq may have also been exposed to asbestos in buildings there.
So far, tens of thousands of veterans have been diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases. And those numbers are expected to rise, due to the long latency period of cancers like mesothelioma. The term “latency period” refers to the time between exposure to a carcinogen (in this case asbestos) and the appearance of symptoms. It usually takes decades for asbestos fibers to create the scarring that leads to malignant mesothelioma tumors, meaning that more veterans will likely be diagnosed with asbestos-caused illnesses in the future, despite the fact that asbestos use has decreased.
Air Force veterans and asbestos
During World Wars I and II, the Air Force was part of the U.S. Army. It expanded rapidly during World War II and became a separate military branch in 1947 — a time when 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, meaning that Airmen, especially mechanics, were continuously exposed to high levels of the carcinogenic material. Asbestos was also used to insulate ceilings, walls, and floor tiles in buildings and barracks.
Air Force veterans most at risk of developing mesothelioma:
- Aircraft Handler
- Aircraft Mechanic
- Electrical Systems Specialist
- Environmental Systems Specialist
- Fire Control Technician
Army veterans and asbestos
Most buildings and military vehicles on U.S. Army bases in the 20th century contained asbestos. Because of its fire-resistant nature, asbestos was used as insulation and incorporated into cement flooring, roof tiles, and plumbing. It was also used to line vehicle gaskets and brake systems. Although the Army closed many of these buildings in the 1990s, many of the ones that remained open underwent repairs and remodeling. When not handled correctly, these activities exposed a new generation of service men and women to carcinogenic asbestos fibers and dust.
Army veterans most at risk of developing mesothelioma:
- Aircraft Mechanic
- Vehicle Mechanic
Marine veterans and asbestos
Many Marines encountered asbestos on Navy ships and in Navy shipyards. Marines lived and worked in close quarters with Navy Sailors both above and below deck, meaning they were often surrounded by asbestos-laden paint, insulation, and other materials. Mess halls, sleeping quarters, and boiler and engine rooms all contained asbestos. The mineral was also used to insulate pipes and plumbing.
Marine veterans most at risk of developing mesothelioma:
- Marines on Navy Ships
Navy and Coast Guard veterans and asbestos
Navy and Coast Guard veterans face a heightened risk of developing mesothelioma. Ships and submarines were poorly ventilated,resulting in higher concentrations of airborne asbestos. Insulation and paint that contained asbestos were used in almost all areas of Navy and Coast Guard vessels. When crew members had to repair these parts of the ships, they inadvertently released carcinogenic asbestos fibers and dust into the air.
Navy veterans most at risk of developing mesothelioma:
- Boatswain’s Mate
- Damage Controlman
- Electrician’s Mate
- Fire Control Technician
- Gunner’s Mate
- Hull Maintenance Technician
- Machinery Repairman
- Machinist’s Mate
- Marine Inspectors
- Water Tender
Military Families: At Risk of Second-hand Exposure
Asbestos was also harmful to the families of the service members who worked with it every day. The service members would bring home microscopic asbestos fibers on their clothing, shoes, skin, and hair, which then transferred to furniture and carpet.
Doctors refer to this as ‘secondary’ or ‘indirect’ exposure, and it can be just as dangerous as working with asbestos directly. Exposure to asbestos — in any form — is potentially hazardous and can cause illnesses like mesothelioma and asbestosis.
Any veteran who was honorably discharged from the military is eligible for VA benefits. These include disability benefits, compensation for medical expenses, and survivor benefits for family members (also called ‘dependency’ or ‘indemnity compensation’). Service men 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), which will determine individual eligibility.
What you need to start the VA claims process:
A current diagnosis of an asbestos-caused disease (such as mesothelioma or asbestosis) recognized by the VA. Proof that the veteran worked with or was exposed to asbestos during their service
A letter from a qualified doctor confirming the diagnosis is a result of asbestos exposure (called a ‘nexus letter’)
Options for filing a VA 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
Many veterans are also eligible for additional financial compensation through from asbestos trust funds, personal injury cases, or wrongful death lawsuits. These will be filed against the asbestos companies — not against the U.S. military. If you are a veteran or the family member of a former service member diagnosed with mesothelioma or asbestosis, it’s a good idea to connect with a qualified mesothelioma attorney who will be able to walk you through your legal options.