Asbestos is used throughout the world in many products and industries, mainly as insulation and fire-retardant material to protect equipment and property from the effects of fire and high temperatures. These beneficial properties were particularly of interest to the various branches of the U.S. military. Starting in the late 19th Century and coinciding with the nation’s rise as an industrial powerhouse, the armed forces adopted asbestos for various safety-related uses.
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History of Asbestos Use by the U.S. Army
Since its formation in 1775, the U.S. Army has been the largest branch of America’s military. Tasked to carry out land-based military operations, the Army has hundreds of facilities scattered throughout the U.S. and overseas. It also operates tens of thousands of military vehicles. Army trains, trucks, tanks, armored personnel carriers, and Humvees are deployed all over the world in support of U.S. foreign policy, defending America’s allies, and providing homeland defense. As with all other branches of the military, however, the Army’s heavy reliance on asbestos resulted in a multitude of soldiers developing life-threatening diseases such as mesothelioma and asbestosis.
The Army first used asbestos in the 1800s. The mineral, which are now classified as toxic to humans, was mixed with rubber to make gaskets and other parts for steam engines. Steam engines were used in railroad trains that could quickly haul thousands of men across long distances. They were also used in steamboats, cargo ships, and other seagoing vessels that could carry American soldiers and their equipment on U.S. waterways or to battlefields overseas.
The Army, like the civilian construction industry, also used asbestos as insulation and to protect its facilities from fire or excessively high temperatures. Military bases and their various supporting facilities were built with asbestos-containing materials. Every building in an Army base built from the early 1900’s to the 1980’s included flooring, wiring, insulation, drywall, and roofing material which contained asbestos.
As the Army became more mechanized during the 20th Century, asbestos was mixed liberally with rubber and other materials to manufacture various mechanical parts and equipment. This was done to protect vehicles and facilities from heat damage caused by friction. Army motor pools and train depots carried huge stocks of brake pads, gaskets, and clutches made with asbestos-containing materials. This exposed many mechanics to asbestos while they performed routine maintenance on Army vehicles. especially during World War II.
Asbestos in Protective Gear and Clothing
In addition, the Army exploited the minerals’ innate flexibility and wove asbestos fibers into soldiers’ protective gear. During World War I and the years that followed, U.S. Army gas masks contained filters made with asbestos fibers. Intended as a safety feature to protect soldiers from breathing deadly chlorine gases, these filters made it easy for asbestos to enter their respiratory systems.
The Army also wove asbestos fibers into certain types of clothing, particularly in jackets, gloves and trousers used by firefighters on Army bases and auxiliary facilities. At one point during World War II, asbestos could be found in nearly everything the Army used. Parachute flares, rockets for bazookas, parts for Sherman tanks and Willys jeeps, wiring in B-17 bombers, and even field dressings used by battlefield medics were made with asbestos. It is highly unlikely that many of the 8,267,958 men and women who served in the Army from 1941 to 1945 were spared from even minimal exposure to asbestos.
Vitality of Asbestos
Asbestos was considered vital to national defense, and every effort was made to secure a steady supply from overseas. The Army even kept tabs on enemy efforts to acquire asbestos, especially a German attempt to covertly purchase and smuggle asbestos mined in South Africa. The Army even feared that Nazi researchers had created a chemical replacement, but postwar investigation proved this rumor to be baseless.
The Hidden Menace of Asbestos
After World War II, the War Department and the Department of the Army continued using asbestos. In addition, the manufacturers of asbestos suppressed data that demonstrated a link asbestos and its dangers to health. Well-connected companies such as W.R. Grace and Johns-Manville ensured that information gathered by doctors as early as the 1890s remained out of the public eye.
With the belief that asbestos was safe and a necessary material, the federal government kept purchasing and utilizing it in substantial quantities.
In 197, researchers at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) carried out numerous studies that officially linked asbestos to three debilitating and fatal illnesses: asbestosis, asbestos-related lung cancer, and mesothelioma cancer.
Asbestos-related illnesses had been recorded much earlier, however. As early as Roman times, chronicles described cancer-like illnesses that affected workers who had mined or processed asbestos. But these accounts were not widely known. When asbestos was first used on a massive industrial scale, the miners and distributors marketed the fibrous minerals as being beneficial and even healthy.
Eventually, medical studies in Great Britain and other asbestos-using countries established a causal link between the heretofore beneficial minerals, cancer, and asbestosis. As a result of the EPA’s research on the growing number of mesothelioma cases, the U.S. government, including the Department of the Army, finally stopped purchasing asbestos.
The High Cost of Asbestos Use
Although the Army phased out using asbestos in the construction of new bases and limited its use considerably after 1980, the damage had already been done. Tens of thousands of veterans who had served in the Army between the turn of the 20th Century and the end of the Vietnam War had been exposed to asbestos. Not all of them developed an asbestos illness, but the number of new cases each year is around 3,000.
Of the three asbestos-related illnesses, mesothelioma is the deadliest and hardest to treat. It is not curable, and it is particularly insidious because it takes many years to develop. Many Army veterans can live 30, 40, and even 50 years without knowing they have mesothelioma.
Help for Army Mesothelioma and Asbestos Victims
If you’ve been injured by mesothelioma, asbestos-related lung cancer, or asbestosis, keep in mind that there is a good chance that you’ll qualify for considerable compensation. Remember to fill out our form to get your free Financial Compensation Packet, with information on top asbestos and mesothelioma lawyers in your area. If you have questions or need additional assistance, contact us at 800-793-4540.