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Navy Veterans & Mesothelioma

U.S. military veterans make up the largest portion of mesothelioma diagnoses, but of those veterans, the men and women who proudly served in the U.S. Navy are far and away the biggest group. The numbers don’t lie: 33% of mesothelioma cases involve Navy or shipyard exposures.
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Why were so many U.S. Navy veterans exposed to asbestos?

Before the 1970s, when the dangers of asbestos became more widely known and its use became highly regulated, asbestos was hailed for its strength and heat resistance. Because of these properties, asbestos was used as an ingredient in the production of countless manufactured goods. From boilers to pipe insulation, many asbestos-containing products were used in the construction of Navy ships. As the demand for a stronger, larger fleet grew during the World War II era, new ships filled with asbestos-containing materials were built at an astonishing speed. Between 1938 and 1945, a total of $590,000,000 was spent on construction and improvements at Naval shipyards. The vessels built during this period were sent to sea filled with brave servicemen who often performed their duties surrounded by asbestos-containing products with absolutely no warning of the dangers they were being exposed to.

The Source: How Asbestos Exposure Occurred in the Navy

Asbestos-containing products could be found throughout Navy ships and in the shipyards where they were built. On their own and in good condition, these materials would probably not have posed much of a threat. However, as products or materials began to age, wear down, or break, the asbestos fibers inside them were disturbed and released into the air, our sailors unknowingly breathing them in. Asbestos could be found in things like:

  • Adhesives
  • Boilers
  • Brakes
  • Cements
  • Floor coverings
  • Gaskets
  • Pipe coverings
  • Valves

High-Risk Areas for Asbestos Exposure on Navy Ships

Asbestos-containing products could be found in most parts of a ship, including mess halls and sleeping quarters, but many of the higher-risk areas were located below decks. Here, these dangerous products were commonly used in locations like:

  • Boiler rooms
  • Engine rooms
  • Pump rooms

In addition to holding the most asbestos-containing products, below-deck areas had poor ventilation, which made working there even more dangerous. When asbestos fibers were released into the air within these tight quarters, they could be easily inhaled by workers or carried off in the dust on their clothing—spreading danger anywhere, to anyone on the ship.

Mesothelioma Can Take Decades to Develop

The height of asbestos-containing product use in the U.S. Navy occurred during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Because mesothelioma has such a long latency period, symptoms can take 30 to 50 years to appear. Many Navy veterans who served long ago may just now be realizing that they may have been exposed to asbestos and that they may have or could develop mesothelioma.