The U.S. Coast Guard is the fifth and smallest branch of the U.S. armed forces. Veterans of the Coast Guard were exposed to asbestos aboard ships, in shipyards and in housing structures through much of the 20th century, especially during World War II when ship production increased significantly.
U.S. Coast Guard veterans were exposed to asbestos in the same way and capacity as veterans of the Navy — the U.S. military branch with the highest risk of developing asbestos-related diseases.
However, at just a tenth of the size of the Navy, the Coast Guard has significantly fewer cases of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases.
Coast Guardsmen who served during WWII faced the highest risk of asbestos exposure. Many worked in shipyards where asbestos was used to insulate and fireproof ships and boats.
Asbestos resists corrosion and high temperatures, making it an ideal material for the shipbuilding industry. It is also inexpensive, incredibly light and durable. Unfortunately, it is also highly toxic, and for many years, the U.S. government failed to acknowledge the health hazards of asbestos.
Coast Guardsmen who worked around asbestos-containing products, especially in poorly ventilated areas, such as boiler rooms and engine rooms, were vulnerable to exposure.
Veterans who served at the Curtis Bay Coast Guard Yard were also at risk because of asbestos contamination during shipbuilding and repair activities. Asbestos was also found in the barracks at the shipyard, known as Fleet Hall. Each of the building’s wings had roofs made from asbestos shingles.
The Coast Guard continued to use asbestos in vessels through the 1970s, before the federal government began regulating its use in the 1980s.
Many Coast Guard veterans were consequently exposed to asbestos while serving their country. And because asbestos-related diseases have latency periods spanning decades, veterans exposed many years ago are now being diagnosed with asbestosis, mesothelioma and asbestos-related lung cancer.
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Numerous studies have documented the harmful effects of asbestos on members of the U.S. military.
In the 1970s, the Coast Guard and the National Cancer Institute collaborated on a study to evaluate the mortality rate of marine inspectors between 1942 and 1970. A follow-up study published in 2009 extended the cohort by 14 years.
The studies found Coast Guard marine inspectors have a much higher mortality rate compared to other officers in the branch. Marine inspectors were exposed to asbestos and other dangerous chemicals during inspections of merchant vessels in the U.S. and throughout the world. Work included internal inspection of cargo tanks and pump rooms — areas known for containing asbestos products.
Many of these exposures occurred inside Liberty Ships, the primary vessels used to transport war materials to places of conflict. These ships were loaded with asbestos-containing materials used in pipes, ducts, insulation and heating systems.
The Coast Guard has some of the oldest ships in the world. Cutters, the largest ships in the Coast Guard, are the only vessels in the branch with a permanently assigned crew.
Although these ships were much smaller than many of the battleships and aircraft carriers used by the U.S. Navy, cutters had large engine rooms that utilized asbestos products for insulation and fireproofing.
Other large Coast Guard ships, such as Polar-class icebreakers, used asbestos in pipes, deck-coating materials and electrical wiring, among other components.
Coast Guard veterans assigned to these larger vessels may have been continuously exposed to asbestos. Other vessels that may have contained asbestos materials include:
The Curtis Bay Coast Guard Yard, also known as the Coast Guard Yard, was established in 1899 as a training academy and boat repair facility. Located southeast of Baltimore, Maryland, it was fully operational as a shipbuilding and repair site by 1910 and later became part of the shipbuilding effort when the U.S. entered WWII.
The facility was responsible for vessel repair and overhaul, manufacturing activities and buoy construction, and operations lasted well into the 1970s.
One result was debris that contaminated the facility with toxic substances such as asbestos, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), pesticides and dioxin. In 2008, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) signed a federal facility interagency agreement with the Coast Guard for the cleanup of the Curtis Bay Coast Guard Yard, which was designated an EPA Superfund in 2002.
The agreement mandated the Coast Guard identify environmental impacts associated with its past activities and take the necessary actions to protect the community and the environment.
Today, the Curtis Bay Coast Guard Yard provides industrial support for the Coast Guard, including the design, construction, overhaul, repair and modification of ships.
Civilian workers also have a history of exposure at U.S. Coast Guard shipyards. A 2007 study published in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine analyzed 4,702 civilian workers who were employed at Curtis Bay between 1950 and 1964. They were followed through 2001.
The workers had a higher mesothelioma mortality rate compared to the average population. Workers employed at the shipyard for more than 10 years were roughly 33 percent more likely to die from mesothelioma than those employed less than 10 years.
“Employment in this Coast Guard shipyard revealed a small but significant excess mortality from all causes, lung cancer and mesothelioma, most of which is probably related to asbestos exposure,” the study concluded.
There is at least one known mesothelioma-related lawsuit involving the Curtis Bay Coast Guard Yard and asbestos exposure. In 2003, the estate of Harry Hunter sued Owens-Illinois Glass for providing Kaylo, an asbestos-containing insulation used at Curtis Bay.
Hunter, who died from mesothelioma in 2001, had worked as an electrician at Curtis Bay for 33 days during the summer of 1956 while he was in college. The jury awarded Hunter’s estate $4.2 million for his wrongful death. The amount was later reduced because Maryland state law mandated a liability limit of $600,000.
It is important for Coast Guard veterans to understand the ways they could have been exposed to asbestos while serving and what resources are available if they are diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease.
Coast Guard veterans are eligible to file a claim with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). A successful claim can give veterans needed compensation for treatments and other medical expenses.
Veterans also have the option to file a lawsuit against the companies responsible for manufacturing asbestos products used by the Coast Guard.
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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