Mesothelioma & Veterans

Mesothelioma and Veterans

Asbestos was used by all branches of the military between the 1920s and the 1980s - particularly by the United States Navy. Sea-going vessels of the Navy, Coast Guard and Merchant Marines were all filled with the toxic substance from stem to stern and keel to the wheelhouse. Exposure to asbestos can result in mesothelioma, a rare, aggressive cancer caused almost exclusively by exposure to asbestos.


The three major types of mesothelioma are:

  • Pleural: the cancer attacks the lining around the lungs
  • Pericardial: the cancer is found in the sac surrounding the heart
  • Peritoneal: the cancer is in the lining of the gastrointestinal tract

The pleural variety is the most common type of mesothelioma, since asbestos usually enters the body via the respiratory system when a person inhales the fibers. Current research strongly suggests that when asbestos fibers enter the alveolar sacs of the lungs, they act as microscopic spears or needles, literally drilling though lung tissue from the inside out. This activates the body's own immune system. Meanwhile, as the fibers drill their way through the lung tissues, they interact with cells on a molecular level in some way that researchers have yet to fully understand, causing them to become malignant.

Unfortunately, the long latency period associated with mesothelioma can make treatment difficult. All cancers are classified into four stages; at Stage I and II, the cancer is usually treatable and patients may have a favorable prognosis. However, symptoms of mesothelioma are not usually apparent until 20 to 50 years after initial asbestos exposure occurred. Typically, by this time, the disease has progressed to Stage III or IV when often little can be done except treating a patient to ease the pain through palliative treatments.

Where Was Asbestos?

In addition to naval vessels, where asbestos insulation and pipe-lagging was found primarily in the engine and boiler rooms, products with asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) were used in structures such as barracks and aircraft hangars, vehicles that included jeeps, trucks, ambulances and tanks (automotive components such as brake linings, clutch disks, and hood liners are frequently made with ACMs), and especially fueling stations and ordnance depots, where fire was a real danger.

Veterans who served any time between the late 1930s and the early 1980s are at risk for asbestos disease, but current members of the armed services who have served in Iraq may also be exposed. Although the military began phasing out the use of asbestos in the late 1970s and most types of asbestos are subject to some kind of regulation in the United States, reports on a Web site operated by Congressional Representative John Conyers (D-MI) suggest that some $195,000 worth of asbestos was shipped to occupation forces in Iraq during 2003. Because of the dry climate, such asbestos poses an exceptional hazard not only to service personnel, but also to civilian contractors and local inhabitants.

A Silver Lining

Although mesothelioma is a serious and ultimately fatal disease, a diagnosis is no longer the automatic and immediate death sentence it once was. Because of earlier diagnosis, better treatments and greater understanding of the disease, some patients are managing their disease and surviving for many years. There are a few cases in which patients have managed to stop the progression of the disease, although there have only been two documented cases of actual remission.

If you are one of the 25 million past or current members of the armed forces, it is important that you take advantage of the VA benefits you have earned and get regular checkups. Early detection is the key to survival, and a recent blood test developed by a Japanese bio-tech firm can detect the early markers of mesothelioma long before symptoms are apparent. Called MESOMARK, it has recently been approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration. Veterans are encouraged to ask their doctor about this potentially life-saving diagnostic tool. offers a comprehensive packet about mesothelioma and veterans. To receive your complimentary copy overnight, please fill out the form on this page.

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