Asbestos Exposure Across the Armed Forces

For much of the 20th century, asbestos products were common in the U.S. military because of their ability to insulate and fireproof. Every branch of the armed forces used asbestos to build ships, tanks, trucks, aircraft, barracks and other buildings.

The military purchased asbestos products from manufacturers who withheld information about asbestos. This put service members who handled asbestos products and lived in insulated quarters at risk.

As a result, thousands of American veterans have developed asbestos-related diseases. Many veterans, including those with mesothelioma, are eligible to file an asbestos VA claim to receive compensation and health care benefits.

Asbestos Exposure by Military Branch

Asbestos in the US Navy

American flags in front of a U.S. Navy ship.
Asbestos was heavily used in the construction of Naval ships.

The U.S. Navy covered its ships from bow to stern with asbestos products. Navy veterans today are paying the price for those manufacturing decisions.

Nearly one-third of people who file mesothelioma lawsuits are veterans, and a majority of those have a Navy service record.

The worst areas for exposure were below-deck compartments. Boiler rooms, engine rooms, ammunition storage rooms, and even mess halls and sleeping quarters had asbestos.

In August 2020, a study published in the International Journal of Radiation Biology analyzed the cause of death for military personnel who participated in nuclear weapons tests from 1945 to 1962. While no illnesses were attributed to radiation exposure, a high risk of mesothelioma was observed among those who served on Navy ships.

A study from 2019 found that Navy personnel were more likely to die from mesothelioma than people in any other branch of the military. Certain job categories had the highest potential for asbestos exposure. They included machinist mates, boiler technicians, water tenders and pipefitters.

Asbestos Exposure in the US Marine Corps

U.S. Marine Corps veteran

Marines got exposed in the vehicles, airplanes and boats that took them to fight. The places where they lived and practiced could be risky too.

Marines who worked as mechanics or repairmen may not have known it, but they were working with materials that contained asbestos. This type of asbestos would release dust into the air which could be harmful to breathe in.

Asbestos and the US Army

Older veteran of the U.S. Army saluting
Army veterans were exposed to asbestos in buildings decades after construction using asbestos ended.

Army veterans were exposed to asbestos in buildings decades after construction ended.

Members of the U.S. Army were exposed to asbestos fibers in many places during the 1900s, including where they ate, slept and worked. Asbestos was used in pipes and materials like flooring, roofing and cement.

By the late 1970s, they stopped using asbestos in new buildings. However, it is still found in Army bases many years later. In fact, it was one of the biggest problems at 32 Army bases that were closed or changed during the end of the century. This caused them to have to spend $1 billion cleaning up the environment.

US Air Force Asbestos Exposure

Two U.S. Air Force veterans saluting in a crowd
U.S. Air Force members were exposed to asbestos in their planes and bases.

The U.S. Air Force used asbestos in planes, radar stations and bases where men and women were stationed. Asbestos made an ideal insulating material in aircraft. The cockpit needed heat protection. Asbestos was found in heat shields and durable valves, gaskets, electrical wiring and brakes.

Air Force mechanics and pilots faced danger when they worked on or flew in planes. Pilots who flew the aircraft were vulnerable, too, when sitting in a cockpit with an asbestos coating.

Asbestos Exposure in the US Coast Guard

United States Coast Guard seal
Many Coast Guard members were exposed to asbestos while on Naval ships.

Members of the U.S. Coast Guard were often exposed to asbestos on ships. All areas surrounding the engine and boiler rooms were insulated with asbestos. The ropes used throughout ships were woven with asbestos fibers. Many sections of ships were coated with asbestos insulation and fireproofing.

The Coast Guard, like all branches of the military, has been diligent in recent years in protecting its members. It isn’t just the ships where asbestos has threatened members of the Coast Guard. Asbestos endangers them in housing structures and buildings around Coast Guard bases. Members now must sign a Disclosure of Environmental Health Hazards in Coast Guard Housing contracts. This happens if they are moving into any structure built before 1981.

Although asbestos use has ended in the military, the long latency period of mesothelioma still leaves many at risk. It can take anywhere from 20 to 60 years after exposure to asbestos fibers for mesothelioma symptoms to appear.

Asbestos and the US Merchant Marine

United States Merchant Marine seal

Asbestos products were also used on the noncombat cargo ships of the U.S. Merchant Marine. Numerous studies have documented the harmful effects of asbestos exposure on merchant crewmen and their increased rate of respiratory diseases.

Many merchant mariners worked on Liberty Ships, which carried supplies to areas of battle. These ships contained a lot of asbestos, so it’s too expensive to recycle the metal when they’re out of service.

National Guard Asbestos Exposure

Servicemen of the National Guard marching holding flags

Although the use of asbestos has diminished since the 1980s, many of the places where national guardsmen serve still have old asbestos materials, leaving guardsmen exposed to long-term dangers.

In 2009, for example, the Missouri Army National Guard armory in Cape Girardeau underwent a $1.5 million renovation, which revealed asbestos products all throughout a building originally constructed in 1953.

In 1993, the city of Westminster, Maryland spent $15,000 to make sure that an old National Guard armory they had bought was free from asbestos.

National Guard members can be exposed to asbestos when helping out in emergency situations. After Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf States in 2005, 50,000 troops from the National Guard were sent there to help with rescue missions. This included going into homes and buildings that had been damaged by the storm and may have contained asbestos.

Quick Fact:
Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, thousands of guardsmen were mobilized around New York City. They provided security and cleanup help, but they were also showered with the toxic dust that enveloped Manhattan for months. There were about 400 tons of asbestos in the Twin Towers when they collapsed.

Asbestos Exposure During Wartime

World War II

Side of two U.S. military uniforms from World War II (WWII).

There are no records available that can accurately count the number of World War II veterans who have died of asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma. Yet no generation of war heroes was more vulnerable to the ravages of this toxic mineral.

Asbestos products were considered ideal for ships and submarines by Navy leaders — except the surgeon general of the Navy, who reported his concerns over the health hazards of asbestos in 1939. Unfortunately, his warnings were ignored, and the Army, Air Force and Marines all followed the Navy’s lead.

Even before America entered World War II, asbestos was classified by government officials as a critical material. Worldwide demand for the product was outpacing the supply and causing shortages that alarmed military leaders early in the war.

Asbestos-Related Deaths of WWII

Photograph of U.S. Navy Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, who died of mesothelioma

Decorated Navy Admiral Elmo Zumwalt died of mesothelioma, the rare cancer caused by asbestos. Zumwalt was a career officer who served in World War II and later became the youngest man in American history to serve as United States Chief of Naval Operations.

Exposure to asbestos early in Zumwalt’s Navy career likely caused the disease that killed him at age 80 in January 2000.

Frank Curre of Waco, Texas, died in 2011. The Navy veteran survived the attack on Pearl Harbor but died from mesothelioma on the 70th anniversary of the bombing in Hawaii that pulled America into the war.

Korean War

Statues from the Korean War Memorial

During the Korean War, asbestos was used in virtually every mode of transportation: Ships, tanks, aircraft, jeeps and trucks. More than 300 products or parts on ships built during the Korean and Vietnam War eras contained asbestos.

Jeff Burdine, a Navy veteran from Salem, Ohio, served two years aboard the USS Neosho during the Korean War. He was diagnosed with asbestosis in 2012, according to the News Herald of Port Clinton.

One of his regular jobs was cleaning steam pipes wrapped in asbestos insulation. Because his post-Navy working career never involved asbestos, he believed the Navy was his only source of exposure, which made him eligible for compensation from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

The Korean War Educator includes a memoir section that details the asbestos exposure and mesothelioma diagnosis of Navy veteran Allen Johnson from Smithville, Utah. He served aboard the USS Randall, working in an engine room laced with asbestos dust.

In 2004, in compensation for his mesothelioma diagnosis caused by that asbestos exposure, he began receiving a monthly check of $894. He was grateful for it, but it was hardly enough for a shortened lifespan that stemmed from serving his country.

Vietnam War

Statues from the Three Servicemen Vietnam War Memorial
Asbestos continued to be heavily used by the military during the Vietnam War.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, America averaged an annual consumption of more than 700,000 tons of asbestos from 1964 to 1975, the latter years of the Vietnam War. The all-time high was 803,000 tons in 1973.

During the Vietnam era, as in the two wars before, asbestos was used in virtually all forms of military transportation, including tanks, aircraft, jeeps, trucks and ships.

“We had no idea [about asbestos then], no one did,” said Marine Corps veteran David Cutts of New Jersey, who was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2005, almost 40 years after returning from his six months in Vietnam. He believes his asbestos exposure occurred on a Navy ship used to transport troops.

Hamilton Jordan, who was the White House Chief of Staff for Jimmy Carter, died of mesothelioma in 2008. He also attributed it to asbestos exposure from his military service during the Vietnam War.

Wars in Iraq & Afghanistan

U.S. Soldiers running out of a CH-47 Chinook helicopter during the Iraq war.
U.S. soldiers face the threat of asbestos exposure from unregulated asbestos use in Iraq and Afghanistan.

While asbestos use in the U.S. military dropped significantly after the Vietnam era, the asbestos industry has boomed in Iraq, Afghanistan and other war-torn countries. These nations continue to use asbestos to rebuild infrastructure as economically as possible.

The ongoing unregulated use of asbestos poses serious long-term health risks to the residents of the Middle East and U.S. military members deployed there.

Military operations have disturbed asbestos-containing materials in older buildings in Iraq and Afghanistan, sending toxic fibers into the fierce desert winds that spread the contamination for miles.

In addition, Afghanistan receives considerable amounts of asbestos from nearby Kazakhstan, one of the world’s biggest exporters of asbestos.

The International Ban Asbestos Secretariat said in a report that “an increase in demand for asbestos-containing building products to rebuild Afghanistan has led to increased local production.” In addition, it reported little awareness by Afghan residents about the long-term health risks of handling asbestos.

In 2009, liability lawsuits in nine states were filed against Kellogg, Brown and Root, an American construction company operating in Iraq and Afghanistan. KBR was accused of creating open-air burn pits that released asbestos and other toxic chemicals into the air, putting U.S. service members at risk.