Military veterans account for approximately 8 percent of the total U.S. adult population today. Military veterans also account for an estimated 30 percent of all cases of mesothelioma, the rare and aggressive cancer caused by an exposure to asbestos.
There is a good reason for the disproportionate amount. For many years, the military relied heavily on asbestos, the versatile, naturally occurring mineral that could strengthen and help fireproof almost everything. Although its use has been dramatically reduced in recent decades, the toxic effects of asbestos will continue to haunt military veterans for many years.
Question: If the military doesn't use asbestos much anymore, why are veterans still becoming seriously ill today with asbestos diseases?
Typically, there is a lengthy latency period (10-50 years) between exposure to asbestos and diagnosis of mesothelioma. Once they are inhaled or ingested, the microscopic asbestos fibers work slowly to cause scarring in the lining around the lungs and stomach, which eventually leads to big problems. Some veterans who were exposed during the Vietnam War, which ended in 1975, are just now being diagnosed. There also are veterans who served not long ago in crumbling, asbestos-filled buildings in Iraq and Afghanistan. These veterans likely won't be diagnosed for decades.
Question: Is there one branch of service in which veterans are particularly susceptible to developing an asbestos disease?
Yes, U.S. Navy veterans are prime candidates to develop serious asbestos-related issues. In the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, ships and submarines were covered with asbestos from bow to stern due to its fireproofing qualities. (For more on asbestos and ships, check out Shipyards and Asbestos: Frequently Asked Questions) More than 300 products commonly found on those ships included asbestos. The intention was to make the ships safer, but it caused long-term health issues for those aboard the ships. The pipes, boilers, paneling, adhesives and insulating materials are just a few examples of asbestos covered materials aboard the ships.
Question: What about the other branches of military service? Are those veterans at risk, too?
Veterans from the U.S. Army, Air Force and Marines also are at risk for developing an asbestos-related disease in the future. Asbestos was used in these areas for the same reasons as in the Navy. It helped to strengthen and protect equipment. The Air Force jets were once filled with asbestos parts, putting the mechanics and airmen at risk. The Army bases, where the soldiers lived, slept and ate, were also loaded with asbestos products. The Marines often were deployed on Navy ships. No veteran was immune to the risk.
Question: What was the peak period of asbestos use in the U.S. military?
From the 1940s to the early 1970s, asbestos was used with everything. Once the general public became more aware of the dangers, the use of asbestos dropped quickly in anything new being built. Yet ships, submarines, jeeps and vehicles didn't disappear. They were still in use for many years. Military bases had aging asbestos products into the 1990s. The abatement of asbestos was a slow, gradual process.
Question: Are there other reasons for the disproportionate number of veterans emerging with asbestos diseases?
Yes, there are other reasons for the disproportionate number. Many veterans left the service and went to work in construction, factories, shipyards, manufacturing and automobile repair — all are industries where workers were at high risk for asbestos exposure in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s.
Question: Is there anything a military veteran who thinks he was exposed years ago should be doing today to minimize any future health problems?
Be proactive with health care. There is no cure for mesothelioma, but it can be treated effectively with a curative approach if caught in the early stages. In most cases, it is not diagnosed until it is in the advanced stages. Many of the early symptoms mirror those of less serious problems, and they are ignored. Get a yearly checkup with a chest X-ray. Remember to talk to you physician about past asbestos exposure.
Question: What are some of the early symptoms of asbestos disease?
A persistent dry cough, shortness of breath, an unexplained pain in the chest or abdomen, or even some muscle weakness could be sign of pending problems. If you think you were exposed to asbestos in the past, tell your doctor. Don't assume these symptoms are being caused by old age. It might not be.
Question: Can a veteran hold anyone legally responsible for causing this exposure?
The military is hard to touch because of something called the Feres doctrine, but veterans can hold companies that supplied the toxic asbestos products to the military responsible for exposure.