Mesothelioma & Veterans

Veterans and Asbestos Exposure

Asbestos exposure was one of the many risks that the overwhelming majority of veterans were not apprised of - despite the fact that the asbestos industry, the federal government and the upper echelons of the U.S. Navy were well aware of such hazards.

Today, many veterans that have experienced asbestos exposure in the past are still being diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases, including lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma. This is because of the severe latency period associated with exposure to airborne asbestos fibers, which ranges between 10 and 50 years.

To be fair, the Roosevelt Administration, while initially hesitant to issue health warnings for fear of causing "disturbances in the labor force" during a time of war, did issue asbestos safety "advisories" for shipyard workers in 1943. These advisors recommended the use of face masks and ventilation fans. However, these did not have the force of law and were not taken seriously by management or the workers themselves.

Use of Asbestos in the Navy

The military (especially the Maritime Services) valued asbestos for its fire-resistant and insulating properties. The U.S. Navy began mandating the use of asbestos in combat vessels as far back as the 1920s. After the Morro Castle tragedy in 1934 (a passenger liner which caught fire and burned off the coast of New Jersey), the federal government began to pass regulations requiring the extensive use of asbestos in all sea-going vessels.

For this reason, asbestos insulation was extensively used throughout all vessels. Common locations where asbestos was used included the engine room, boiler room and other rooms below deck. The enclosed spaces within these vessels often had poor air circulation, exacerbating the problem of airborne asbestos fibers. This was especially a concern during combat, as the concussion of firing the ship's cannons could knock asbestos pipe lagging and insulation loose, causing it to become friable.

Sailors were not the only ones at risk. Naval ships have been used to transport members of all branches of the service, particularly the Marines (late actor Steve McQueen, a veteran of the USMC, was perhaps one of the most famous victims of mesothelioma, caused by exposure to asbestos aboard naval transports). In the months following the end of World War II, hundreds of thousands of servicemen were given transportation home from the Pacific Theater aboard naval vessels during Operation Magic Carpet.

Other Applications

Although the Maritime Services (Navy, Coast Guard, Marine Corps and Merchant Marine) were the largest users of asbestos products, they were not the only branch of the service to do so. In fact, every branch of the service mandated the use of asbestos products between the 1930s and the 1970s. Army barracks were often heavily insulated with asbestos.

In addition, asbestos-containing materials could be found in numerous mechanical components of Army vehicles, including jeeps, transport trucks, ambulances and even tanks. Brake shoes, generators, clutch disks and electrical systems all contained some form of asbestos. It is currently estimated that 25 million current and former members of the Armed Services have been exposed to some form of asbestos.

Current Concerns of Asbestos

Incredibly, nearly $195,000 worth of asbestos was shipped to occupation forces in Iraq in 2003 - despite the fact that the military began phasing out use of this deadly substance in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In such a dry desert climate, asbestos poses a threat not only to military personnel, but virtually everyone in the country.

Today, about 3000 commercial products in the U.S. still contain asbestos. Although recent legislation has been passed in an attempt to regulate the substance, this legislation applies mainly to new uses of asbestos and the importation of new supplies of asbestos into the country. In addition, Canada, Russia and China are still large producers of asbestos and most of their production is shipped to developing countries.

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