Veterans & Mesothelioma

Pleural mesothelioma has taken a disproportionate toll on U.S. veterans, and there is a confirmed reason why: asbestos fibers were once everywhere a military service man or woman turned. Veterans account for an estimated 30 percent of all pleural mesothelioma cases diagnosed annually in America, a sobering reminder of the extensive use of asbestos in every branch of military service.

Pleural mesothelioma is a rare but aggressive cancer caused by repeated exposure to asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral that once was coveted for its ability to strengthen, insulate and fireproof almost everything.

Asbestos seemed perfect for military use, making it safer to operate ships, submarines, planes, trucks and weapons. It was used in military housing and most every place that servicemen worked. The belief was that asbestos made everything better.

Those who served in the armed forces were well aware of the risks and the outside dangers that came with the job of defending the country, but they never anticipated the threat from within: the asbestos hidden from view.

Unfortunately, asbestos is highly toxic, a fact often ignored until public outrage in the 1970s started a steady reduction of its use. It took decades more to remove, exposing hundreds of thousands of military personnel to the threat of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases.

The lengthy latency period between exposure and definitive diagnosis - anywhere from 10 to 50 years - left veterans from World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and every era since Vietnam wondering about their long-term health. They have reason for concern. Decades of exposure by those who served in the military proved harmful. Estimates are that one-third of those diagnosed today with pleural mesothelioma served in the military, many of them in the Navy.

Most Common Type of Mesothelioma

Pleural mesothelioma begins with the inhalation of microscopic asbestos fibers that become airborne when disturbed. They can lodge in the membrane around the lungs, eventually causing physiological changes in cells that lead to cancer.

The pleural membrane, or pleura, includes two layers. The outer layer lines the chest cavity and the diaphragm. The inner layer covers the lungs. Pleural mesothelioma develops in one of those layers, but can spread through both of them and into the lungs.

Pleural mesothelioma is the most common type of mesothelioma among veterans and non-veterans alike. The prognosis is often poor unless diagnosed in the early stages.

One reason for the poor prognosis is that early detection of the disease is so difficult. The first symptoms often mirror those of less-serious respiratory conditions. Doctors often misdiagnose the disease as influenza or pneumonia. In addition, confirmation testing procedures are extensive and take time - much more than a biopsy. Early symptoms often include a shortness of breath, a persistent cough, weight loss and vomiting.

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Navy Hit the Hardest

Although neither the U.S. Defense Department nor the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs shared exact statistics, the Navy was hit the hardest by mesothelioma. From the 1930s through the '70s, U.S. ships and submarines were covered and filled from one end to the other with asbestos products - perfect to make the vessels as fireproof as possible.

Even though the surgeon general of the U.S. Navy discussed the "hazards of asbestosis" as early as 1939 and long-term health issues regarding asbestos were being echoed through the next several decades, the need for the material outweighed the risks and the warnings.

It wasn't until the '70s - after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stepped up its regulation of the mineral - that the shipbuilding industry reduced the use of asbestos.

Navy veterans who worked in boiler rooms, engine rooms and storage rooms were all exposed to asbestos. Those who handled the gaskets, valves and cables were also exposed. From navigational rooms to the mess halls, asbestos was used everywhere on the ships. It was even often used in the sleeping quarters.

The Army, Marine Corps, Air Force, Coast Guard and National Guard also were using asbestos products extensively, leaving nearly everyone vulnerable. Veterans who served between World War II and the Vietnam War amazingly are just now being diagnosed. Veterans who served after Vietnam also were at risk because of machinery and products that were not replaced until many years later.

Throughout the 20th century, shipyards contained a high concentration of asbestos. Ships were being built, repaired and overhauled. Almost every occupation in the shipyards included handling asbestos-containing materials or the potential to breathe asbestos dust. Painters, machinists, welders and others within the industry regularly were exposed to asbestos.

Even the normal wear and tear of a ship exposed crew members because the slightest disturbance of an asbestos-containing product would send the toxic fibers into the air.

Navy Jobs at Risk

According to the War Related Illness & Injury Study Center, which is part of the VA, service members at risk for asbestos exposure include:

  • Navy veterans who served on ships whose keels were laid before 1983.
  • Navy personnel who worked below deck before the early 1990s.
  • Navy veterans who worked in shipyards from the 1930s through the 1990s.
  • Navy Seamen who were tasked with removing damaged asbestos lagging in engine rooms, and then used asbestos paste to re-wrap pipes.
  • Pipe fitters, welders, boiler operators, building renovation and demolition specialists who worked in any of the services before the mid-'90s may have been exposed.

Beyond the Navy

The asbestos problem in the military didn’t end with the Navy. Coast Guardsmen served aboard asbestos-laced Navy vessels, and Marines often were transported in ships or armored vehicles filled with asbestos.

Army personnel ate in mess halls built with asbestos, and slept in barracks constructed the same way. Even in recent years, Army soldiers were exposed in Afghanistan or Iraq. When older buildings were demolished, asbestos fibers were released into the air.

Air Force airmen operated and repaired aircraft, including aircraft carriers, training aircraft, transporting aircraft and utility aircraft, all of which were once constructed with asbestos-containing parts.

Veterans Can Get Asbestos-Related Benefits

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), about 21.5 million veterans live in the United States. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of these veterans were exposed to asbestos during their service and now live with a high risk of developing pleural mesothelioma and other asbestos-related conditions.

The Pleural Mesothelioma Center’s Veterans Department provides military veterans who may have been exposed to asbestos with the resources they need to successfully secure benefits from the VA.

Our Veterans Department is headed by retired Navy officers who understand first-hand how the VA determines benefits decisions. Whether you ‘re seeking personalized assistance with filing a claim or you’re just looking for some advice, our experienced VA-Accredited Claims Agents are determined to help you in any way they can.

Our experienced staff helps veterans navigate through the complex VA claims process, ensures veterans receive their maximum benefits and appeals any denied VA claims.

Pleural mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases are recognized as service-connected medical conditions, which means veterans are eligible for a number of financial benefits from the VA. The benefits depend on their level of disability, their particular disease and an exposure summary that details their interaction with asbestos during their service. We can help with all of the required paperwork.

Today's Veterans on Watch

Because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, medical and asbestos experts fear more exposures will arise. Although the U.S. military has an asbestos ban, the Middle East is among the regions of the world that does not. In fact, asbestos - which can be turned to dust with any number of explosive devices - is ubiquitous as a construction material in the region (and in many other parts of the world).