Asbestos Exposure Among Navy Veterans

Asbestos is a fibrous mineral that was once coveted for its heat and chemical resistance, flexibility, strength and affordability. It was used in countless products found in shipyards, on naval vessels and in Navy bases.

When asbestos products are installed, renovated, worn or damaged, they release microscopic asbestos fibers into the air. When these fibers are inhaled, many become lodged in the lining of the lungs. Persistent inhalation may lead to an accumulation of fibers in the body. This can cause serious health conditions, including mesothelioma.

Although the surgeon general of the U.S. Navy described the “Hazards of Asbestosis” at the New York Navy Yard in his 1939 annual report, his concerns about asbestos were dismissed by Navy personnel in command. Even when evidence linked serious long-term health conditions to asbestos, it was largely ignored.

Today, it is important that Navy veterans understand how they may have been exposed to asbestos while serving their country and what that means for them now. The Department of Veteran Affairs acknowledges several asbestos-related diseases as potentially service-connected, including mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis.

Veterans who develop mesothelioma may take advantage of the following benefits:

  • VA disability claims
  • VA special monthly compensation
  • VA survivor benefits
  • VA health care
  • Asbestos trust funds
  • Legal claims

Asbestos in Navy Ships

Aircraft Carrier Teddy Roosevelt
Archived documents confirm the extensive use of asbestos products aboard U.S. Navy aircraft carriers.

Asbestos was used in thousands of Navy ships from bow to stern, in boiler and engine rooms and as insulation and protection around any heat-producing equipment.

Products such as cables, valves and gaskets contained asbestos. The toxic mineral was heavily used for insulation and covered pipes, pumps, motors, condensers and compressors that helped run the ships and submarines.

Asbestos was also found in weapon and ammunition storage rooms, mess halls, sleeping quarters and navigation rooms of Navy vessels. Sailors who were deployed overseas for a long period of time may have been exposed in more than one way.

As Navy ships aged, insulation materials became brittle and easily damaged. Any disturbance of these materials would send fibers into the air. Sailors often slept in bunks positioned right below asbestos-covered pipes that would shake off asbestos dust daily.

Members of the U.S. Marines were exposed to the same kinds of asbestos products because they were installed on marine vessels as well as naval vessels.

Asbestos in Naval Bases and Shipyards

Naval ships in Pearl Harbor, Honolulu
Since World War II, more than 10,000 workers were exposed to asbestos at Pearl Harbor, one of the most famous naval bases in the United States.

The Navy’s pervasive use of asbestos went well beyond its use in ships and submarines.

Navy bases on land were constructed with countless asbestos-containing construction products. Some residential subdivisions built on or near these Navy bases were also at risk for asbestos contamination, especially during and after demolition and improper disposal of asbestos-containing materials. In addition to naval bases, U.S. Army bases used a lot of asbestos products that put Army veterans at risk of exposure.

Navy shipyards were also major asbestos exposure sites for Navy personnel and civilians who were employed by a number of shipbuilding companies. Asbestos was extensively used by shipbuilders in all areas of Navy ships that needed heat resistance.

Exposure from these sites continued throughout the 1990s because shipyards sold scrap pieces of asbestos-containing ships that were no longer in use.

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Navy Veterans Compensation and Benefits

Navy veterans have several options to access compensation and benefits through the VA and other channels. The Department of Veterans Affairs offers free health care, disability compensation, survivor benefits and other VA benefits.

  • VA Disability Claims: A mesothelioma or lung cancer diagnosis caused by asbestos exposure in the military qualifies as a 100% disability, which is the maximum amount of compensation available through VA disability claims.
  • VA Special Monthly Compensation: This VA benefit is available to veterans who are bedridden and require a home health aide. It is also available to spouses or parents of veterans who qualify.
  • VA Survivor Benefits: Known as Dependency and Indemnity Compensation, this benefit is available to spouses of veterans who died of a service-connected disability. It is a monthly benefit that starts at $1,300.
  • VA Health Care: Veterans diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases connected to their service are eligible for free health care through the VA system.
  • Asbestos Trust Funds: Outside of the VA, veterans may also be eligible to file an asbestos trust fund claim. Compensation is commonly in the six-figure range for claims involving mesothelioma.
  • Legal Claims: Veterans also have the option to file a legal claim with the manufacturers of the asbestos products they were exposed to in the Navy. These claims may result in compensation in the form of settlements or verdicts.

Filing a VA Claim for Navy-Connected Mesothelioma

Naval veterans filing a VA claim for mesothelioma may consider the following tips to get their claim approved:
  • Work with a VA-accredited claims agent to fill out paperwork correctly the first time. This might get your claim approved on the first try.
  • If you’ve already filed a claim and it was denied, you should speak with a VA-accredited claims agent who can help you resubmit the claim properly.
  • Submit your claim with relevant medical records, including a statement from your mesothelioma doctor about your diagnosis and physical disability.
  • Include a written asbestos exposure summary detailing all of the asbestos products you were exposed to and how often you worked around these materials. A claims agent can help you identify and name the products you worked with.

Navy Occupations Affected by Asbestos Exposure

Navy veterans may have been exposed to asbestos in a number of ways during their service. Veterans at the highest risk are those who participated in the construction, repair, renovation or demolition of naval vessels containing asbestos.

Asbestos fibers became airborne during these activities and others, such as cutting asbestos-containing pipes. Jobs that involved work on pipes, boilers, walls, floors or ceilings exposed veterans to asbestos insulation.

Several jobs onboard Navy ships required close interaction with asbestos, including:
  • Machinist’s mates
  • Boiler tenders
  • Water tenders
  • Pipefitters
  • Firemen
  • Engine mechanics
  • Shipfitters
  • Steel workers
  • Repairmen

Engine mechanics and repairmen who served in the U.S. Air Force also worked closely with similar asbestos products used on aircraft.

Mesothelioma and Navy Veterans

No study has been conducted to estimate the percent of naval veterans who are afflicted with mesothelioma, but research shows that they are disproportionately affected by the cancer.

For example, a 2019 study published in the International Journal of Radiation Biology reported Navy personnel have the highest rates of mesothelioma in the military. Researchers found 56% more cases of mesothelioma among Navy veterans compared to the general public.

The same study also found that certain Navy jobs, including machinist’s mates, boiler tenders, water tenders, firemen and pipefitters, were 6.47 times more likely to die of mesothelioma than the general public.

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Treatment for Navy Veterans with Mesothelioma

Veterans have access to specialized mesothelioma treatment through the VA health care system. Some VA facilities have become established mesothelioma treatment centers, and a handful of VA doctors are considered experts in mesothelioma treatment.

VA Mesothelioma Treatment Centers

  • VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System
    Los Angeles, California

    This facility is the largest location within the VA health care system, serving 1.4 million veterans. It is home to one of the world’s most renowned pleural mesothelioma surgeons, Dr. Robert Cameron.

  • VA Boston Healthcare System
    West Roxbury, Massachusetts

    This system offers three campuses and six clinics throughout Boston. It serves as a teaching facility for Harvard Medical School, and features Dr. Abraham Lebenthal, a pleural mesothelioma expert and thoracic surgeon.

    VA Boston Healthcare System
  • Atlanta VA Medical Center
    Decatur, Georgia

    This VA center has partnered with the Emory School of Medicine and the Winship Cancer Institute at Emory University to provide excellent mesothelioma treatment.

  • Miami VA Healthcare System
    Miami, Florida

    The Miami VA facility features nearly 200 hospital beds to serve the large veteran population of South Florida. It is home to pleural mesothelioma specialist Dr. Dao Nguyen, who is double-board certified in thoracic and cardiac surgery.

  • Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center
    Houston, Texas

    This VA facility is one of the largest in the country and has received several awards for providing excellent care to veterans. It partners with Baylor College of Medicine to provide specialized mesothelioma treatment.

VA Mesothelioma Doctors

Dr. Robert Cameron, pleural mesothelioma expert
Robert B. Cameron, M.D. Thoracic Surgeon at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center

Dr. Cameron is a pioneer of lung-sparing surgery for early-stage pleural mesothelioma. Cameron is director of thoracic surgery at UCLA Medical Center and treats patients at the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System. Cameron also serves as director of the Pacific Mesothelioma Center.

Dr. Abraham Lebenthal, pleural mesothelioma expert
Abraham Lebenthal, M.D. Thoracic Surgeon at Boston VA Healthcare

Dr. Lebenthal is Israeli-board certified in general surgery and thoracic surgery. He is a veteran of the Israeli Army, where he served as a physician and commanded an infantry platoon. He advocates minimally invasive surgery to speed up the recovery time, as well as tailored treatment options for each patient.

Free Resources for Navy Veterans

Pleural mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases are recognized as service-connected medical conditions. The Pleural Mesothelioma Center’s Veterans Department provides free assistance to Navy veterans and can help with filing VA claims.