Mesothelioma & Veterans

Request your free mesothelioma guide and get the answers you need to make smart decisions now.

Get Your Free Mesothelioma Guide

Veterans are our national treasures. These brave men and women protected the United States in times of peace and war. They served in the military under many dangerous conditions and hardships. All veterans knew the perils of facing a foreign enemy, but few understood their American-made working environment would put them at deadly health risks from exposure to asbestos.

Quick Facts About U.S. Veterans and Mesothelioma

There are over 25 Million U.S. military veterans alive today. America’s population slightly exceeds 323 Million so that places vets at just under 8% of the nation’s population.

Veterans Extensive Asbestos Exposure

Despite being less than 10% of the country’s population, veterans account for over 33% of all mesothelioma cases due to widespread use of asbestos in all branches of the military.

There’s an apparent reason why American military veterans have such a high rate of mesothelioma compared to the civilian population. It’s because asbestos-containing materials (ACM) were so widely used in the armed forces. Every military branch had conditions exposing personnel to airborne asbestos fibers. That included the Air Force, Army, Marines, Navy and Coast Guard.

History of Asbestos Use in the United States Military

Asbestos use in the United States military has a long and extensive history. From 1935 to 1980, asbestos was considered the perfect solution to many military problems.

Asbestos fibers were fireproof, excellent insulators, non-corrosive, electrically non-conductive, chemically stable, lightweight, widely available and exceptionally affordable. Many military machines and buildings were crammed full of asbestos.

Fireproofing was the main reason ships, aircraft, tanks, trucks and buildings contained asbestos. Asbestos doesn’t burn, which protected service members against fire—a risk that military members can face.

Deployments on land, sea and in the air required protection from the elements as well as from enemy armaments. Asbestos was an insulation material that protected service members from harsh temperatures.

Asbestos Use in Military Branches

All major U.S. military branches used asbestos in some capacity or another, which put certain veterans at greater risk.

Asbestos was used in:

  • Air Force
  • Army
  • Coast Guard
  • Marines
  • Navy

Asbestos-containing material use skyrocketed during World War II. Every Navy vessel had miles of asbestos wrap on pipes and wires as well as lining engine and boilers rooms. Air Force planes used asbestos for fireproofing and friction control. So did the U.S. Army, Marines, Coast Guard and National Guard. That included mobile transport and stationary buildings like barracks, residences and administration offices.

Alert: Asbestos is Still Used Today

Asbestos use in the American military didn’t stop when World War II ended. Veterans of Korea, Vietnam and the Cold War all suffered extensive asbestos exposure. So did recent vets serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. That’s not to mention the thousands of homeland state protectors in the National Guard.

It’s safe to say almost every United States military veteran had some form of asbestos exposure during their service. Contacting airborne asbestos particles was extremely risky for those employed by the forces from 1939 when World War II broke out until the late 1980s. That’s when the dangers from asbestos exposure were no longer possible to conceal.

Health Dangers from Airborne Asbestos Fibers

Some veterans suffered far more exposure than others, depending on their specific occupation or role and even their military branch. Navy personnel were the most affected.

There’s no question that asbestos causes mesothelioma. Veterans inhaled microscopic asbestos fibers during their tour of duty. These tiny particles embedded into their lung linings (mesothelium). Asbestos fibers are insoluble and can’t break down so the particles remain in the mesothelium. Over time, scar tissue forms around the fibers as a natural reaction by the body’s immune and repair system.

Eventually, this scar tissue mutates into cancerous tumors and causes the deadly disease known as mesothelioma. There is no known cure for mesothelioma. Mesothelioma from asbestos exposure is different from other forms of cancer, including regular lung cancer. There is an extended latency period with mesothelioma, lasting up to 50 years. Veterans exposed to workplace asbestos fibers in the 1960s or 1970s many only now be developing mesothelioma symptoms.

Types of Asbestos Used by the Military

Different types of asbestos fibers presented various health risks. Asbestos is a general term for 6 different asbestos forms found in 2 separate asbestos classifications. One class is called serpentine asbestos. That’s because when viewed under a microscope, these fibers appear long and bendy or serpent-shaped. Chrysotile or white asbestos is the only fiber in the serpentine group. It was by far the most common asbestos material used in military construction.

Over 90% of all asbestos-containing materials used chrysotile. It went by the moniker “good asbestos” as it was less harmful than its amphibole cousins.

Amphibole asbestos fibers microscopically appear like crystals with sharp spines protruding from a rigid center. They look like naval mines and act like them, too.

Amphibole asbestos has 5 separate sub-classes:

  • Actinolite
  • Amosite
  • Anthophyllite
  • Crocidolite
  • Tremolite

Of the 10% of amphibole asbestos exposure U.S. military veterans experienced, amosite, crocidolite and tremolite were most common.

Chrysotile asbestos was so widely used because it was publicly available and cheap. It did the job in most applications because it was also soft and flexible. Chrysotile appeared in most military applications where it needed to bend and stretch like in pipe and wiring wraps.

Amphibole fibers were much stiffer and sturdier. Military vehicles used amphibole asbestos in high-heat and friction products like clutch facings and brake pads.

Amphibole asbestos fibers presented a higher risk because they were so hard and sharp.  This “bad asbestos” severely irritated the mesothelium and substantially increased the odds of scar tissue turning cancerous. Like chrysotile, amphibole health risks were relative to the number of fibers in the environment around a veteran.

How Veterans Were Exposed to Asbestos

Because chrysotile asbestos was a component in constructing military vehicles and buildings, millions of veterans were placed in a dangerous environment daily. Each Armed Forces branch used chrysotile asbestos. However, some trades and occupations had more asbestos exposure due to how they used asbestos-containing materials.

These were the 4 categories of asbestos users or exposure groups:

  • Manufacturers: Workers involved in directly manufacturing asbestos products were highly exposed to raw asbestos materials. Civilians made most military products, meaning that there are fewer veterans in this category.
  • Installers: Many veterans installed asbestos products in equipment and buildings. They also used raw asbestos materials to manufacture parts like gaskets and wraps on site.
  • Maintainers: This group had the highest exposure for military veterans. Mechanics and maintenance workers constantly disturbed asbestos fibers and filled their workspace air with pollutants.
  • Secondary Exposure: Veterans not directly working with asbestos products were also placed at risk by being in asbestos-contaminated areas. This group included troops in transit, soldiers in combat zones with asbestos machines and building demolitions. The group also included administrators who thought they were safe in offices built with ACM. Families of military personnel also suffered secondary asbestos exposure through work clothes, vehicles and military gear.

Although United States Navy veterans were at the most significant risk for asbestos exposure, all military branches suffered from inhaling airborne asbestos fibers.

Asbestos fibers cross-contaminating between buildings was a big problem but virtually went unnoticed. The sheer volume of ACM products used in all military branches resulted in the veteran health catastrophe unfolding today.

Asbestos Exposure in the Air Force

The U.S. Air Force used large quantities of asbestos in their aircraft construction because it was lightweight, fireproof, non-corrosive and had excellent thermal transfer properties. Aircraft cockpits and cargo areas were lined with asbestos. It served as engine shrouds and heat shields as well as weapons protection.

High-friction regions of equipment like aircraft brakes were also lined with asbestos products. Support vehicles like fuel and service trucks contained asbestos for the same reasons.

Air Force buildings also contained loads of asbestos-based products. Roofs on hangars, barracks and base residences used asbestos shingles. Cement in foundations and fireplaces were asbestos-based. So were drywall, paint and insulation.

These Air Force veterans had the highest risk of asbestos exposure:

  • Aircraft and vehicle mechanics
  • Electricians and pipefitters
  • Welders and metal workers
  • Environmental support specialists
  • Weapons technicians

Asbestos Exposure in the Army

Army soldiers and support personnel also suffered from asbestos exposure. The highest levels of exposure came from buildings and vehicles. Tank crews were especially vulnerable due to the vast amount of asbestos used in these massive machines. Asbestos made tanks fire resistant and helped control their temperature and sound. Tank interiors were clouded with asbestos fibers simply due to the vibrations occurring when operating the tank.

Army bases built from World War II until after Vietnam all used ACM products in construction.

Like Air Force buildings, the floors, walls, ceilings and exteriors depended on asbestos materials. Most asbestos exposures affected support personnel rather than field soldiers.

Highest risk Army veteran occupations were:

  • Heavy and light duty mechanics
  • Carpenters and construction workers
  • Tank and armored vehicle operators
  • Welders and machinists
  • General maintenance personnel

Asbestos Exposure in the Marines

Marines were mostly exposed to asbestos when transported in Navy ships and Air Force transport planes containing it. Fortunately, most Marines weren’t in closed containment long enough to have dangerous asbestos exposure levels.

Buildings on bases were a Marine’s most substantial exposure threat. All marine stations built between 1940 and 1980 depended on ACM for everything from floor tiles to cabinet liners. Marines trained, ate and slept in asbestos-laden halls, messes and barracks.

Marine roles most at risk for asbestos exposure included:

  • Armored personnel carrier crews
  • Maintenance mechanics
  • Shipboard secondments
  • Construction workers
  • Building renovation and demolition specialists

Asbestos Exposure in the Navy

Navy veterans had the highest risk of asbestos fiber exposure—regardless of whether they were stationed at sea or on land. The U.S. Navy utilized more asbestos products that all the other military branches combined. Asbestos lined naval ships from end to end. Asbestos also filled shipyard buildings and Navy housing.

Navy ships needed asbestos for fireproofing and insulation. They also required asbestos for its non-corrosive protection from seawater rust. Asbestos wrapped electrical cables and fuel pipes. It was around boilers and inside ducts. Asbestos also secured galleys, halls and sleeping quarters.

Every Navy vet experienced asbestos exposure, but these ratings had the highest risk of developing mesothelioma:

  • Shipyard workers building and repairing ships
  • Welders and metal fabricators
  • Boilermakers, pipefitters and electricians
  • Insulators and painters
  • Engine and boiler room operators

Asbestos Exposure in the Coast Guard and National Guard

Coast Guard and National Guard veterans had similar asbestos exposure as their other 4 military branch counterparts. Coast Guard sailors and shore workers worked in an asbestos-filled environment just as Navy vets did. National Guard veterans served across the board on ships, in planes and inside army vehicles.

Both National Guard and Coast Guard veterans are entitled to the same respect and treatment as regular forces members. That includes medical treatment and monetary compensation after developing mesothelioma after being exposed to asbestos during their service to the country.

Compensation for Veterans Suffering Mesothelioma

All U.S. veterans are entitled to government-funded medical attention and compensation after developing service-related mesothelioma. It’s important to know that the federal government has legal precedents preventing direct lawsuits. Instead, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has channels to process compensation claims for medical and living expenses for mesothelioma victims.

The VA mesothelioma claim process works in this manner:

  • Eligibility: Applicants must be honorably discharged, exposed to asbestos during military service and have developed mesothelioma or another disease from military asbestos exposure.
  • Evidence: Documented medical evidence must prove the applicant developed mesothelioma from service-related conditions. Only being exposed to asbestos without developing a disease is not a valid claim.
  • Application: Veterans with asbestos-related claims can apply online or in person at a VA office. They can also retain legal counsel to represent them.

Compensation For Veterans Update

U.S. military veterans can also file lawsuits against negligent asbestos product manufacturers and suppliers. Nothing prevents a veteran from filing for VA compensation while still presenting a private lawsuit against third parties. It is essential to act fast when diagnosed with mesothelioma. Depending on state jurisdiction, statutory limitation periods can apply.

Veterans who have developed mesothelioma as a result of service-related asbestos exposure may be entitled to compensation. Wrongful death lawsuits are also possible after someone has passed from mesothelioma.

For more information on U.S. military veterans’ mesothelioma claims or other legal advice, call Mesothelioma Help Now at (800) 584-4151.

View Author and Sources

  1. Department of Veterans Affairs “Compensation Claims” Retrieved December 15, 2017
  2. “Asbestos Illness Related to Military Service” Retrieved December 15, 2017
  3. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry “Asbestos Fact Sheet” Retrieved December 15, 2017

Last modified: April 4, 2019