For more than half of the last century, the military used asbestos for shipbuilding, repair, and construction of different facilities. The armed forces utilized the toxic mineral primarily for its resistance to heat and fire. In turn, many veterans developed mesothelioma, a fatal disease caused by asbestos exposure.
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Asbestos: Helpful but Deadly
As useful as asbestos-laden materials might be, they also pose serious health risks.
Exposure to the sub-microscopic fibers found in asbestos causes serious illnesses that can affect the lungs, abdominal cavity, and other organs, in a rare form of cancer known as malignant mesothelioma.
Many veterans worked around and with asbestos-containing products, which put them at direct risk of developing the deadly disease. Airborne asbestos fibers are odorless and easily inhaled without detection.
History of Asbestos Use in the Military
Connections between asbestos exposure and health problems were known for decades, but the asbestos mining industry successfully suppressed them for many years. The widespread use of asbestos-laden materials in the military peaked in the 1940s during World War II.
World War II and Asbestos Use
All branches of the military used asbestos prior to the late 1970s. The U.S. Navy was an especially large user of asbestos-containing materials (ACMs), particularly during World War II. Large amounts of asbestos were added to the building materials used to build Navy vessels of all types, in order to help protect them from fires.
Asbestos was also widely used in naval ships and shore facilities built between World War II and the early stages of the Vietnam War. Asbestos materials can be found particularly in fire-prone areas such as ships’ engineering spaces and boiler rooms.
Not only were combat and support ships’ hulls made with asbestos-laden steel, but their electrical systems, including the insulation and wiring, were also manufactured with asbestos-containing materials (ACMs).
The Navy and Asbestos
The Navy has always considered fire at sea one of the biggest hazards to its ships and their crews. In turn, measures are taken to reduce fire-related damage. Therefore, many Navy personnel assigned to refit or repair naval vessels were exposed before the health risks of asbestos were officially acknowledged in 70s.
After the U.S. entered the war in late 1941, the Navy expanded in size to meet the needs of a global conflict. The U.S. Navy started World War II with several hundred warships and auxiliary vessels, but by the time the war ended in August of 1945, it operated over 1200 warships.
All of these vessels, whether they were combatants or support craft such as tankers and transports, were full of asbestos.
Warships were especially packed with asbestos. Almost every compartment or component of a fighting ship had asbestos insulation or parts built with the mineral to prevent fires from spreading. In addition, sailors assigned as firefighters wore protective gear such as fire proximity suits, which were made from asbestos fibers.
Although the Navy’s intentions may have been geared toward safety, the long term effects of extensive use of asbestos in its ships proved to be negative.
Working with Asbestos
As early as the 1960s, many ex-sailors, Marines, and shipyard workers began to show symptoms of asbestos diseases, including asbestosis and mesothelioma. Also, many World War II-era vessels were in active service in Korea and Vietnam. This exposed even more people to asbestos long after World War II ended.
At the height of asbestos’ widespread use, military and civilian personnel in the Army, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard were exposed to the mineral fibers’ presence in tiles, construction materials, automotive parts (such as brakes and clutches), and the insulation used in steam pipes.
Engineers and construction workers involved in erecting or renovating barracks, repair facilities, offices, and schools in military bases are thus more likely to be exposed to asbestos fibers. However, due to the widespread use of asbestos before its initial restriction by the U.S. government in the late 1970s, anyone is at risk of being exposed.
Korean War and Asbestos Use
Similar to World War II, military personnel during the Korean War were exposed to asbestos. A good majority of equipment used during the Korean War was manufactured during the World War II era.
Along with the Merchant Marine and Navy ships that were created with loads of asbestos, barracks, chow halls, shops, and buildings that housed all branches of the military were laden with asbestos during the Korean War. In addition, similar to the previous war, vehicles and armor contained asbestos in several parts, including gaskets, seals, brake shoes, and fittings.
Many who served in the Korean War began experiencing mesothelioma and asbestosis symptoms during the 1980s and by the 1990s, thousands were diagnosed with these dangerous diseases.
The average age of those who served in the Korean War who developed an asbestos-related disease is around 65 because of the long dormancy period associated with the illnesses.
As veterans reach their 70s, more cases of mesothelioma come to light as symptoms of mesothelioma begin to surface. As diseases go, mesothelioma is not a common affliction. Averages of 3,000 new cases are diagnosed each year.
According to the International Mesothelioma Interest Group, the number of new cases will continue to increase until 2020. After 2020 there will be a statistical drop in mesothelioma diagnoses in countries such as the U.S. which have limited the use of asbestos since the 1970s.
Vietnam War and Asbestos Use
Vietnam veterans were also exposed to asbestos in numerous ways. Regardless of what branch the veterans served in during Vietnam, the risk of asbestos exposure was extremely high, resulting in thousands upon thousands of severe illnesses.
The Navy particularly placed veterans at the highest risk for exposure. From tiles, cables, pipes, and gaskets, virtually every naval ship contained asbestos in various parts. Of course, this is not to say that veterans in other branches of service weren’t at risk for exposure.
Much like the wars that preceded Vietnam, asbestos was used in motorized vehicles, barracks, insulation, ceiling tiles, flooring tiles, brakes, gaskets, and more.
Suppression of Health Risks
The asbestos industry did its best to cover up evidence of the dangers of asbestos for many years. As early as the 1920s, doctors in Great Britain discovered a link between asbestos fibers and respiratory illnesses affecting workers who inhaled them at their workplaces.
Most of these early warnings were dismissed by the asbestos industry. Asbestos fibers, which cause asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma, continued to be used by both the military and civilian industries for many years.
The U.S. stopped mining asbestos in 2002, but many military and civilian workers continue to face asbestos exposure.
If you’ve been injured by asbestos, keep in mind that there is a good chance that you’ll qualify for considerable compensation. Don’t forget to fill out our form to get our free Financial Compensation Packet, filled with information on the experienced asbestos and mesothelioma attorneys in your area. If you have questions or need additional assistance, contact us at 800-793-4540.
Page Reviewed and Edited by Mesothelioma Attorney Paul Danziger
Paul Danziger grew up in Houston, Texas and earned a law degree from Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago. For over 25 years years he has focused on representing mesothelioma cancer victims and others hurt by asbestos exposure. Paul and his law firm have represented thousands of people diagnosed with mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer, recovering significant compensation for injured clients. Every client is extremely important to Paul and he will take every call from clients who want to speak with him. Paul and his law firm handle mesothelioma cases throughout the United States.