The Navy used more asbestos-containing products than any other branch of the U.S. armed forces. As a result, Navy veterans have the highest risk of developing mesothelioma and other asbestos-related illnesses.
The Navy had the highest demand for asbestos products in the military. That’s because these products prevented fires aboard ships and submarines. Tight quarters and poor ventilation allowed asbestos fibers to accumulate in vessels. Navy veterans were exposed to dangerous concentrations of asbestos.
Exposure to asbestos causes life-threatening diseases including mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis.
The connection between past service in the Navy and present-day asbestos disease is indisputable. The Navy was aware of the risks as early as 1939.
That year, the Navy surgeon general’s annual report outlined the dangers at the New York Navy Yard. The report was titled “Hazards of Asbestosis,” and those in command ignored the surgeon general’s concerns.
It is important for Navy veterans to get regular medical exams to check for signs of asbestos-related diseases. These diseases don’t even begin to develop until decades after exposure occurs.
Asbestosis takes at least 10 years to develop. Mesothelioma takes 20 to 50 years to develop. Unfortunately, symptoms of mesothelioma arise after the cancer has progressed to an advanced stage when it is harder to treat.
It’s important for veterans to understand how exposure happened during their service and what they can do about it now.
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Navy veterans still are paying the price today. The Navy finally stopped filling ships with asbestos in the 1970s, but those vessels remained in use for many years after production stopped.
When these vessels were overhauled or retired, many veterans were exposed to asbestos while repairing vessels and preparing others to be decommissioned.
Before asbestos regulations were put in place, shipbuilders were using it in hundreds of applications.
Engine rooms, boiler rooms, weapons and ammunition storage rooms contained the mineral. Anywhere that needed heat resistance had asbestos.
It was found in mess halls, sleeping quarters and navigation rooms.
Products like cables, gaskets and valves contained asbestos.
It covered the pipes, pumps, motors, condensers and compressors as insulation. It was in wall insulation and flooring.
The construction, demolition, repair and renovation of ships exposed Navy personnel to microscopic asbestos fibers. As ships aged, asbestos became brittle. Any disturbance, especially in the close quarters of ships and submarines, would make the fibers airborne.
Sailors aboard warships often slept in bunks that were below asbestos-covered pipes, forcing them to shake off the dusty material on a regular basis. Personnel who worked below deck were at the highest risk because of poor ventilation.
Navy veterans were also exposed to asbestos on land. Military bases and vehicles also contained asbestos products.
In the late 1970s, the U.S. Navy launched the Asbestos Medical Surveillance Program (AMSP). The program monitors the health of service members and civilian employees of the U.S. Department of the Navy who were exposed to asbestos.
AMSP helps the Navy keep records of exposed members. It provides regular medical examinations and chest X-rays to detect asbestos-related diseases as soon as possible. Early detection is crucial for successfully treating mesothelioma.
When an asbestos exposure incident occurs, medical officers can place anyone affected into the AMSP. A medical officer oversees the initial surveillance exam and the periodic exams that follow. Medical officers are usually the AMSP manager on a ship or in small facilities.
Once enrolled in the program, Navy service members fill out a questionnaire with information about their work history and any past or current exposures to asbestos. The form also asks a series of questions about lung health to identify early warning signs of asbestos-related disease. Some of these signs include shortness of breath and a persistent cough.
Next, members visit an occupational health doctor for a physical exam. The doctor evaluates the member’s health and lung function. They perform an X-ray that may reveal signs of an asbestos-related condition. Another common test, known as spirometry, helps the doctor assess how well the lungs are functioning.
Doctors can identify asbestos-related health problems with the results of the questionnaire and initial physical exam. The doctor documents the results of the exam and tests to use as a reference for future health exams.
Doctors can catch conditions early if new symptoms appear or existing symptoms worsen. Further testing allows doctors to make the correct diagnosis and start treatment.
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Merchant mariners faced the same asbestos-exposure issues as members of the Navy. The U.S. Merchant Marine has been an integral part of America’s war efforts throughout the past 75 years. Its crewmen transported military supplies and troops to battle. It is considered a Navy auxiliary, and is encompassed by the United States Maritime Commission.
A 1990 study published in the British Journal of Industrial Medicine of long-term merchant mariners analyzed the continuing effects of asbestos on ships. Of the 3,324 chest radiographs reviewed, pleural or parenchymal abnormalities were found in close to one-third of those tested.
Engine crewmen were in particular danger, with 391 of the 920 (42.5 percent) showing abnormalities.
The study revealed the long-term effects asbestos had on the crewmen. The majority of the crewmen were exposed more than 40 years prior to the test. This subgroup carried the highest percentage of abnormalities in the study. About 38.5 percent had abnormal imaging scans.
The engine room crewmen also were highly susceptible to experiencing irregularities. Approximately 47 percent of them developed abnormalities more than 30 years after initial exposure.
Merchant mariners are considered civilians and do not receive veterans benefits like those who served in the Navy.
Only merchant mariners who served during World War II get VA benefits.
The National Maritime Union filed a lawsuit against the federal government to create the Ocean Shipping Reform Act of 1998. This act extended veterans benefits to those who served during World War II.
The Navy’s decision to rely heavily on asbestos products went well beyond its use on the water.
For example, a residential subdivision near in Klamath County, Oregon, was cited by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency early in 2011 for asbestos contamination. It was once the site of a Navy base and barracks that were built at the end of World War II.
Civilians and veterans who worked in the shipyards also reported many cases of mesothelioma. Overhauling was an intense industrial process. Ships were disassembled and put back together, which disturbed asbestos materials.
The crew of the ship often lived and worked around this maintenance. Workers were exposed to asbestos even if their normal job descriptions didn’t include asbestos work.
The Navy was selling off many older ships for scrap materials in the 1990s. They often sold scrap materials to ports where workers were not properly trained to handle asbestos, resulting in more needless exposure.
Former U.S. Army Capt. Aaron Munz is the director of the Veterans Department at The Mesothelioma Center, and he is a VA-accredited Claims Agent. He received the Bronze Star in 2004 during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Munz has intimate knowledge of how veterans were exposed to asbestos because he served under similar conditions. Read More
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