Navy ships once were loaded with toxic asbestos, which is one of the reasons that veterans from this branch of the U.S. armed forces have the highest risk of developing mesothelioma or other asbestos-related illnesses.
No other branch of the military during the 20th century had greater demand for the outstanding fire proofing properties of asbestos than that of the U.S. Navy. And nowhere has the onslaught of mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer brought on by exposure to asbestos, hit harder than among Navy veterans.
The connection between past service in the Navy and present-day asbestos diseases is indisputable. Although as early as 1939, a Navy surgeon general’s annual report, titled “Hazards of Asbestosis,” outlined the dangers at the New York Navy Yard. Those in command ignored his concerns.
And despite emerging evidence of long-term health problems caused by asbestos, it was lost amid the growing need to find an affordable and effective way to insulate and protect ships and submarines.
It’s important for veterans to understand how exposure happened during their service, and what they can do about it now. If you were at risk of exposure, symptoms can take decades to surface and typically won’t arise until a disease has progressed to an advanced stage. This stresses the importance of obtaining regular medical exams to check for signs of asbestos-related diseases.
Thankfully, there are free resources available to Navy veterans, such as the Veterans Department at The Mesothelioma Center. Through this program, veterans can learn more about possible exposure and receive assistance with filing a VA claim.
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Navy veterans still are paying the price today. The Navy finally stopped filling ships with asbestos in the early ’70s, but those vessels remained in use for many years after production stopped.
Prior to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulating the use of asbestos, shipbuilders were using it in hundreds of applications. Engine rooms, boiler rooms, weapons and ammunition storage rooms – anywhere that needed heat resistance – all had the mineral. It was in the mess halls, the sleeping quarters and navigation rooms, too. Products like cables, gaskets and valves had asbestos. It covered the pipes, pumps, motors, condensers and compressors that helped run a ship. It was in the wall insulation and the floors.
The construction, demolition, repair or renovation of ships – or naval buildings on land – exposed Navy personnel to the 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.
No fewer than 20 Navy ratings are considered at-risk for asbestos exposure. Boilermakers, boiler tenders and boiler technicians were three of the highest risk ratings.
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. The Marines that often were transported on the same ships were exposed, too. Personnel who worked below deck on ships were at the highest risk because of where the most heat-resistant asbestos was used, nearest the engine and boiler rooms.
In the late 1970s, the U.S. Navy launched the Asbestos Medical Surveillance Program (AMSP), a comprehensive program that 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 so it can provide regular medical examinations and chest X-rays to detect asbestos-related diseases early on. Early detection is crucial for successfully treating mesothelioma, a deadly cancer that typically takes decades to develop after asbestos exposure.
When an asbestos incident occurs, medical officers can place anyone affected into the AMSP. The medical officer, usually the AMSP manager on a ship or in small facilities, will oversee the initial surveillance exam and the periodic exams that follow.
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, such as shortness of breath or a persistent cough.
Next, members visit an occupational health doctor for a physical exam. The doctor evaluates the member’s health and lung function, and then performs 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.
With the results of the questionnaire and initial physical exam, doctors can identify asbestos-related health problems. The doctor documents the results of the exam and tests to use as a reference for future health exams.
If new symptoms appear or existing symptoms worsen, it may indicate an undiagnosed asbestos-related disease. Further testing allows doctors to make the correct diagnosis and promptly get members started with treatment.
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Merchant mariners faced the same asbestos-exposure issues as their counterparts in 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 U.S. Maritime Commission.
A 1990 study 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, with 38.5 percent noting differences in their radiological 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.
Unless they served during World War II, merchant mariners are considered civilians and do not receive the veterans benefits like those who served in the Navy. The National Maritime Union filed a lawsuit against the federal government, which created the Shipping Reform Act of 1988 and extended veterans benefits to those who served during World War II.
The Navy’s decision to rely heavily on asbestos-laced products went well beyond its use on the water. A residential subdivision near in Klamath County, Oregon, which was once the site of a Navy base and barracks that were built at the end of World War II, was cited by the EPA early in 2011 for asbestos contamination.
Civilians who worked in the shipyards also reported many cases of mesothelioma. Going through an overhaul in a shipyard was an intense industrial process where the ship was often disassembled and put back together.
The crew of the ship often lived and worked around this maintenance and, therefore, was exposed to asbestos even if their normal job descriptions didn’t include asbestos work.
Even into the ’90s, the Navy was selling off many of the older ships for scrap materials, usually 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.
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