Written By: Aaron Munz,
Last modified: May 12, 2021

Benefits for Navy Veterans with Mesothelioma

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs recognizes several asbestos-related diseases as potentially service connected, including asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. Navy veterans who get sick because of military asbestos exposure are eligible for free health care, disability compensation and other VA benefits.

Available benefits for Navy veterans include:

  • VA Claims: A diagnosis of service-connected lung cancer or mesothelioma grants veterans 100% disability, which is the maximum level of monthly disability compensation.
  • Survivor Benefits: Surviving spouses of veterans who die from a service-connected disease are eligible for dependency and indemnity compensation.
  • Health Care Benefits: Veterans with asbestos-related diseases may receive specialized health care at VA treatment centers throughout the country.
  • Trust Funds: Veterans with asbestos-related diseases may also file claims with asbestos trust funds, which provide compensation to families facing diseases such as mesothelioma.
  • Other Claims: In addition to VA claims and trust fund claims, veterans may file other types of legal claims to receive compensation for mesothelioma, including personal injury lawsuits.

How Navy Veterans Can File a VA Claim for Asbestos

When you file a VA claim over asbestos exposure, you should:

  • Support it with medical records and a written asbestos exposure summary.
  • Talk to an accredited VA claims agent who can help you gather the documentation needed to file a fully developed claim, which is usually processed twice as fast as a traditional VA claim.

Veterans can also seek compensation from the private companies that sold asbestos products to the Navy. An experienced mesothelioma lawyer can advise your family about filing a legal claim to recover expenses not covered by veterans benefits.

Asbestos Exposure in the Navy

The worst asbestos exposure conditions in the military often occurred on Navy ships and in shipyards. From the 1930s to the 1970s, the Navy used enormous amounts of asbestos insulation and fireproofing products on warships and submarines.

Asbestos was used in naval vessels such as:

  • Cruisers
  • Destroyers
  • Minesweepers

Installing and working with these asbestos products released high concentrations of toxic dust into the enclosed spaces of Navy vessels. Shipyard workers often returned home at the end of the day covered in asbestos dust, causing secondary asbestos exposure among their family members.

Diagram of of asbestos exposure risk levels in U.S. navy ships
Risk Areas for Navy Asbestos Exposure

Aboard Navy vessels, the tight quarters and poor ventilation allowed asbestos fibers to accumulate where service members worked, ate and slept. This extended the exposure to sailors who did not work directly with asbestos. U.S. Marines being transported on Navy ships were also affected.

Inhaling asbestos dust can cause life-threatening diseases later in life such as mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis.

Asbestos Products Used In the Navy

  • Adhesives
  • Aggregate mixtures
  • Bedding compounds
  • Block insulation
  • Boiler insulation
  • Cables
  • Deck covering materials
  • Gaskets
  • Grinders
  • Packing materials
  • Paneling
  • Paint
  • Pipe insulation
  • Pumps
  • Spray-on insulation
  • Thermal materials
  • Valves

The Navy was aware of the risks of using asbestos as early as 1939, and Navy medical officers issued several reports and memos into the 1940s warning against asbestos exposure. However, because asbestos-related diseases take decades to develop, these concerns were largely ignored.

The Navy finally stopped filling new ships with asbestos in the 1970s, but service members continued to risk exposure into the 1990s when repairing or decommissioning existing vessels.

Navy service members were also exposed to asbestos products in aircraft carriers, land vehicles and buildings on naval bases.

Asbestos Exposure in Navy Shipyards

The type of work that took place in shipyards put Navy veterans at high risk for developing asbestos-related diseases. Naval vessels undergo construction, overhauling and decommissioning in shipyards, which involves the installation, repair and removal of asbestos-containing materials.

Shipyard workers had to cut, shape, saw and sand asbestos-containing materials during installation and repair work, which created a lot of asbestos dust. Dust was also an issue during decommissioning because it required workers to demolish asbestos-containing materials.

Civilians and veterans who worked in shipyards also reported many cases of mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma Treatment for Navy Veterans

Veterans bear a heavy burden of asbestos-related cancer, so the VA health care system has partnered with some of the best mesothelioma doctors in the nation. The top VA treatment centers for mesothelioma are located in Houston, Miami, Los Angeles and Boston.

Even if your cancer is not considered service connected, you can still qualify for low-cost VA health care as a Navy veteran and receive assistance with traveling for specialized treatment.

In 2017, the Department of Defense awarded a three-year grant to a research team led by mesothelioma specialist Dr. Raphael Bueno. His project studies the DNA of tumors caused by active-duty asbestos exposure in the hope of developing new targeted treatments for veterans.

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Navy Occupations with Highest Exposure Risk

Any role that involved working on or around asbestos insulation put sailors at risk.

Navy Jobs Historically Associated with Asbestos Exposure

  • Boatswain’s mate
  • Boiler technician
  • Damage control worker
  • Electrician’s mate
  • Fire control technician
  • Gunner’s mate
  • Hull maintenance technician
  • Insulator
  • Lagger
  • Machinist’s mate
  • Metalsmith
  • Pipefitter
  • Water tender
  • Welder

Some Navy service members even wore equipment made of asbestos cloth such as protective gear for firefighters and heat-resistant gloves for sailors manning gun turrets.

In 2019, the International Journal of Radiation Biology published a study of mesothelioma rates in about 114,000 veterans involved in nuclear weapons testing between 1945 and 1962.

Though the veterans in the study were selected because of their involvement with nuclear weapons, the researchers found that radiation exposure was not a significant risk factor for mesothelioma.

Rather, the study confirmed that the highest rates of mesothelioma occurred among enlisted Navy personnel who had close contact with asbestos products.

Many service members were exposed even if their job descriptions did not specify asbestos work. It was risky enough to simply work or live around routine maintenance activities on asbestos pipe insulation or fireproofing.

Civilian shipyard workers who overhauled or disassembled Navy ships also have an elevated risk of asbestos-related illnesses. Taking vessels apart and putting them back together disturbed asbestos materials that had become old and brittle.

Further, when the Navy sold many older ships for scrap in the 1990s, they often sent the ships to ports where workers were not properly trained to handle asbestos. This caused more needless exposure.

Asbestos Exposure Among Merchant Marines

Although the U.S. Merchant Marine is not part of the Navy, its merchant mariners are considered an auxiliary unit of the Navy. These servicemen faced the same asbestos exposure issues encountered by naval personnel.

Merchant mariners are civilians and do not qualify to receive VA benefits, except for those who served during World War II. The National Maritime Union filed a lawsuit against the federal government that led to the Ocean Shipping Reform Act of 1998. The act extended VA benefits to merchant mariners who served in World War II.

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Navy Asbestos Medical Surveillance Program

In the late 1970s, the U.S. Navy launched the Asbestos Medical Surveillance Program. The program monitors the health of service members and civilian employees of the U.S. Department of the Navy, in addition to other branches of the armed forces, who were exposed to asbestos.

The AMSP helps the Navy keep records of exposed members, and 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 — usually the ship or facility’s AMSP manager — oversees the initial surveillance exam and the periodic exams that follow.

This program is helpful to veterans who were exposed to asbestos in the Navy or another branch of the armed forces because it provides health monitoring services that could catch mesothelioma early when it is more treatable.

It also documents service-related asbestos exposure, which is an important part of getting VA benefits approved when a veteran develops an asbestos-related disease.

Asbestos Superfund Site Linked to Navy

The Navy’s decision to rely heavily on asbestos products went well beyond its use on the water.

For example, in 2011 the residential subdivision known as North Ridge Estates near Klamath Falls, Oregon, was named a Superfund site by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for asbestos contamination. It was once the site of a Navy base built at the end of World War II.

Asbestos-contaminated materials and soil were removed from the site between 2016 and 2018. The agency says the area is now safe for residents to continue normal activities.

Secondary Asbestos Exposure Among Family Members of Navy Veterans

Family members of veterans who lived on naval bases were at risk of direct asbestos exposure on the base. They were also at risk of secondary asbestos exposure when their loved one came home after working with asbestos products.

Navy veterans unknowingly brought asbestos fibers into their homes on their shoes, clothing, work tools, skin and hair. Children were exposed when they greeted their parent coming home from work. Partners were exposed through laundering their loved one’s work clothes.

The U.S. Navy has a goal of enlisting 40,000 new sailors in 2020. Each of them will have to learn about the dangers of asbestos exposure on Navy bases to protect their family members from deteriorating asbestos-containing materials.

Common Questions from Navy Veterans with Mesothelioma

When did the Navy stop using asbestos?

The Navy discontinued the use of asbestos for new ships and bases in the 1980s. Veterans who served on naval vessels between 1930 and 1980 have a high risk of developing mesothelioma.

Asbestos was not completely removed or encapsulated on existing vessels and facilities until the late 1990s. Veterans who were deployed overseas may also have been exposed to other sources of asbestos.

Do Navy ships still have asbestos?

Navy ships are no longer built with asbestos-containing materials. Ships that were constructed before the 1980s have also had any exposed asbestos removed or encapsulated. Asbestos on Navy ships does not present a health risk unless damaged or disturbed but can still be found on some older vessels.

What should I do if I believe I was exposed to asbestos while serving?

If you believe you were exposed to asbestos while serving in the military, speak with your primary care physician about getting screened by a mesothelioma doctor. In many cases, veterans are eligible for VA asbestos disability benefits to cover the cost of medical bills and other expenses.

What benefits for compensation are available for Navy veterans with mesothelioma?

Navy veterans with mesothelioma are eligible for monthly benefits and VA health care. Available benefits for Navy veterans also include survivor benefits, specialized health care, trust funds and access to other legal claims.

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