Marines operated ships, airplanes and armored vehicles that contained toxic asbestos products. Exposure to these products has led many Marines to develop incurable diseases including asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma.
The military housing offered to Marines also contained asbestos products. And the Marine Corps worked closely with the Navy, the military branch that used the most asbestos products. This relationship with the Navy significantly increased the risk of asbestos exposure for Marines.
Throughout the 20th century, asbestos was highly regarded for its resistance to heat and chemical damage. It is also flexible, strong and affordable, which made it a desirable material for all U.S. military branches.
Marines may have been regarded as the most highly trained fighters in the world, well aware of the dangers an enemy presents, but they didn’t know the dangers within.
Because mesothelioma typically develops 20 to 50 years after asbestos exposure occurs, Marine Corps veterans may now be experiencing symptoms such as shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing and persistent chest pain.
All Marine Corps veterans should receive routine checkups with a qualified physician to look for any signs of past asbestos exposure and symptoms of mesothelioma.
In 2017, the Department of Defense awarded a three-year grant to a team led by Dr. Raphael Bueno, a top mesothelioma expert. The project’s purpose is to study the genetics of tumors caused by active-duty asbestos exposure and try to develop new targeted treatments for veterans with mesothelioma.
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Marines Exposed to Asbestos on Ships and in Shipyards
Any veteran who spent time aboard military ships or in shipyards was at risk of asbestos exposure.
From World War II through the Vietnam War, Marines were transported on Navy ships, where the use of asbestos was widespread. Poor ventilation aboard military ships and the large amounts of asbestos often exposed sailors and Marines on a daily basis.
Asbestos products were used in the dining and sleeping quarters, engine and boiler rooms and around pipes as insulation. Asbestos was so prevalent that it was found in the cables, gaskets and valves throughout the ships.
Shipyards posed a high risk of asbestos exposure for Marines and sailors. Shipyards had an alarming number of materials containing asbestos to build the ships and ensure each vessel was as fire-retardant as possible.
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Marines Exposed on Land
On land, asbestos was a part of everyday life for Marines. Virtually every military installation had many construction products that contained asbestos. Some of these products included piping and boiler insulation, flooring tiles, ceiling and roofing materials.
For example, the Marine Corps Air Station Yuma in Arizona was contaminated with asbestos. The station became a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site in 1990. Use of asbestos around the base led to soil contamination. In 2001, all the asbestos-contaminated soil was removed. Cleanup at the Yuma station continued with a focus on groundwater contamination.
Asbestos contamination was also found in the following California Marine Corps bases:
- Marine Corps Air Station El Toro
- Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton
- Marine Corps Logistics Base Barstow
In North Carolina, asbestos was found at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune.
One of the most common places Marines were exposed to asbestos was in sleeping quarters. Asbestos was in piping insulation above the beds and even in bedding. Small disturbances released asbestos fibers into the air, which often accumulated as a fine dust on the beds.
Military vehicles were also made with products containing asbestos. These products include brakes, gaskets and engine parts. Asbestos fibers easily became airborne when the parts were worked on and repaired.
The dangers of asbestos became indisputable by the mid-1970s. The military banned its use in new construction, but many of the bases, ships and support vehicles remained in service for many more years.
Marines and Mesothelioma
Many Marine Corps veterans have developed mesothelioma from asbestos exposure that happened during their service.
For example, David Cutts served in the Marine Corps, spending time in Vietnam in the 1960s. He was diagnosed with mesothelioma and opted for aggressive treatment in 2005 that included surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. The treatment plan worked and his mesothelioma remained in control for years beyond the average survival rate.
John Johnson served in the Marine Corps in the 1960s. Johnson served in Vietnam, and 40 years later he was diagnosed with mesothelioma. Johnson was initially misdiagnosed and by the time he received care from a mesothelioma specialist, it was too late for the therapies to work effectively. He died of mesothelioma in 2012.
Actor Steve McQueen believed his asbestos exposure began during his time in the Marine Corps. In the documentary film, “Steve McQueen: American Icon,” McQueen’s widow, Barbara Minty McQueen, recalls the actor telling her how he used to strip asbestos off pipes in a ship’s engine room.
McQueen was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 1979 and died less than a year later at age 50.
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U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2013, August). Exposure to asbestos.
Retrieved from: http://www.warrelatedillness.va.gov/WARRELATEDILLNESS/education/factsheets/asbestos-exposure.pdf
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Retrieved from: http://militaryadvantage.military.com/2011/01/many-vets-at-risk-for-mesothelioma/#ixzz1USHlM8bb
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- Salem News. (2012, April 17). MCAS El Toro: Modern day ghost town. Retrieved from: http://www.salem-news.com/articles/april172012/marine-ghost-town-tk.php
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Last Modified March 1, 2019