Asbestos was an integral part of the U.S. military for much of the 20th century because of its ability to insulate and fireproof - a lifesaving quality during wartime that ensured those serving their country were safe inside their vessels.
While all branches of the armed forces used asbestos in the construction of ships, tanks, planes and barracks, the asbestos product manufacturers withheld information about the dangers of the toxic mineral from the service members who traveled in those vessels, handled those parts and products, and lived in military quarters insulated with asbestos.
The U.S. Navy covered its ships from bow to stern with asbestos products, utilizing their effective fireproofing qualities, but effectively exposing everyone on board to the toxic material. Navy veterans today are paying the price for those manufacturing decisions. Nearly one-third of people who develop mesothelioma are veterans, and a majority of those have a Navy service record.
The worst areas for exposure were below-deck compartments like boiler rooms, engine rooms, ammunition storage rooms, and even mess halls and sleeping quarters. Asbestos paint covered these ships. As ships aged, the paint flaked and asbestos fibers became airborne and inhaled.Learn more about the Navy
Marines were most vulnerable to exposure through the armored vehicles, planes and ships that transported them to battle zones, although even the bases where they lived and trained were problematic as well.
Like counterparts in the Navy and Army, mechanics and repairmen were among the service members who unknowingly worked with friable asbestos in the form of airborne dust and particles.Learn more about the Marines
Service members from the U.S. Army were exposed to asbestos fibers throughout much of the 20th century, mostly in buildings where they ate, slept and worked. Asbestos materials covered pipes and were in flooring and roofing materials. They were also part of the insulation and the cement foundations.
While the use of asbestos in new construction ended by the late 1970s, it remained present in Army installations decades later. It was among the top contaminants at 32 Army bases that were closed or realigned at the end of the century, requiring $1 billion in environmental cleanup.Learn more about the Army
The history of exposure in the U.S. Air Force includes planes, radar stations and bases where the men and women were stationed. Asbestos made an ideal insulating material in aircraft, which needed heat protection in the cockpit; heat shields and overall insulation. Valves, gaskets, electrical wiring and brakes were covered in asbestos.
Air Force mechanics were especially at risk, inhaling the fibers even during routine maintenance. Pilots who flew the aircraft were vulnerable, too, after sitting in a cockpit covered with an asbestos coating.Learn more about the Air Force
Members of the U.S. Coast Guard, like those in all branches of military service, often were exposed to asbestos, the naturally occurring mineral that was used so liberally through much of the 20th century. Although health hazards of asbestos were known as early as the World War II era, the wondrous qualities it possessed – heat resistance, durability, affordability – made it particularly invaluable on vessels built for the Navy and the Coast Guard. Since the threat of fire was such a pressing concern aboard vessels, the risks of asbestos exposure were ignored by those implementing its use.
It was used in gaskets, boiler room equipment, pumps, turbines, electrical insulation, pipes and plumbing. 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, which served as a valuable fire retardant.
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. It endangers them in housing structures and buildings around the Coast Guard bases. Members now must sign a Disclosure of Environmental Health Hazards in Coast Guard Housing contract, if they are moving into any structure built before 1981.
Although asbestos use has been significantly reduced in the last three decades, the long latency period of mesothelioma still leaves many at risk. It can take anywhere from 20 to 50 years after exposure to asbestos fibers for mesothelioma symptoms to appear.
Asbestos has been a commonly used material on ships since it was first discovered to be an effective insulator against heat and fire. Numerous studies have documented the harmful effects of asbestos on merchant crewmen and its increased rate of respiratory diseases.
In a study that included 1,767 marine inspectors who had served in the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) between 1942 and 1970, the inspectors had the highest mortality rate when compared to any other officers in the USCG. The researchers in the study found that USCG marine inspectors were exposed to a variety of toxic chemicals such as asbestos, and as a result they were more prone to develop a damaging disease.
Liberty Ships were the primary vessels used to transport war materials to places of conflict. These ships required tons of asbestos-based materials that were contained in boards, pipes, decks, ducts, insulation, gaskets, cords and heating systems. Because of the high asbestos content that was used to construct these ships, their scrap metal is worthless when the cost of disposing the asbestos is considered.
A 1990 study of long-term U.S. merchant marine crewmen analyzed the continuing effects of asbestos that was present on ships. Of the 3,324 chest radiographs that were reviewed, about one-third had pleural or parenchymal abnormalities. Engine crewmen were in particular danger, with 391 of the 920 (42.5 percent) having abnormalities.
The study displayed the long-term effects that asbestos had on the crewmen. The majority of those in the cohort were exposed more than 40 years prior. 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 were also highly susceptible to experiencing irregularities. Approximately 47 percent developed abnormalities more than 30 years after initial exposure.
Although the use of asbestos has been curtailed sharply in recent years, many of the places where guardsmen serve still have it, leaving them exposed to the long-term dangers. Asbestos was prevalent in construction throughout most of the 20th century, popular as a fire-resistant, durable and affordable mineral that mixed well with most everything.
The Guard also deployed another 50,000 troops to the Gulf states following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. They performed a variety of roles, including rescue missions that repeatedly sent them into damaged homes and buildings filled with asbestos. Guardsmen regularly respond to emergency situations at home and abroad. The use of asbestos is still thriving in areas of recent international peacekeeping missions, including Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, Haiti and Kuwait.
Guardsmen around the country also were exposed at the various installations where they worked before deployment. They often gather in armories constructed in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s when asbestos use was common.
Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, more than 50,000 guardsmen were mobilized around New York City in 2001. They provided security and cleanup help, but were also showered with the toxic dust that enveloped Manhattan for months. There was an estimated 400 tons of asbestos used originally in the Twin Towers that collapsed.
In 2009, for example, the Missouri Army National Guard armory in Cape Girardeau underwent a $1.5 million renovation, which revealed plenty of asbestos throughout a building originally constructed in 1953. In 1993, the city of Westminster, Maryland, paid $15,000 to remove all the asbestos from a former National Guard armory that it purchased a year earlier. Army guardsmen are trained and equipped the same as Army soldiers. They can receive the same military awards, and they also are at the same long-term risks to asbestos exposure.
There are no records available that accurately can count the number of World War II veterans who died of an asbestos-related disease like mesothelioma. Yet no generation of war heroes was more vulnerable to the ravages of this toxic mineral. At a time when asbestos use was accelerating rapidly and its dangers rarely were spoken, this was the veterans group hit the hardest of all by an unexpected enemy.
It was ideal for the Navy, where ships and submarines were covered with asbestos from bow to stern. Although the surgeon general of the United States Navy, in his 1939 annual report, voiced concerns over the health hazards presented by the use of asbestos, his voice and warnings were ignored.
The Army, Air Force and Marines all followed the lead of the Navy. Even before America entered World War II, asbestos was classified by government officials as a critical material, and began stockpiling it. A worldwide demand for the product was outpacing the supply and causing shortages that alarmed military leaders early in the war.
Decorated Navy Admiral Elmo Zumwalt died of mesothelioma. 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. An exposure to asbestos early in his Navy career likely caused the disease that killed him at age 80 in January 2000.
The remaining World War II veterans are dying more frequently now – as many as 15,000 per month, according to Veterans Affairs statistics. 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 (Dec. 7) of the bombing in Hawaii that pulled America into the war.
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 being built during the Korean and Vietnam War eras contained asbestos.
Jeff Burdine, 78, is a Navy veteran from Salem, Ohio, who served two years aboard the USS Neosho, which primarily hauled fuel 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 the steam pipes wrapped in asbestos insulation. Because his post-Navy working career never involved asbestos, he believes the Navy was his only exposure. He recently filed 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 the engine room that was laced with asbestos dust and fibers. In 2004, in compensation for his mesothelioma diagnosis caused by that asbestos exposure, he began receiving a monthly check of $894, which he was grateful for, but it was hardly enough for a shortened lifespan that stemmed from serving his country.
Use of asbestos during the Vietnam War (1956-75) was at its peak in the U.S., making everyone in the Navy, Army, Air Force and Marines especially vulnerable. According to the United States Geological Survey, America averaged an annual consumption of more than 700,000 tons of asbestos from 1964-75. The all-time high was 803,000 tons in 1973.
“We had no idea [about asbestos then], no one did,” said Marine Corps veteran David 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.
During the Vietnam era, asbestos was in virtually all forms of military transportation, including tanks, aircraft, jeeps, trucks and ships. The idea was safety. The long-term reality was deadly for some, which is just now becoming apparent for many.
Hamilton Jordan, who was the White House Chief of Staff for Jimmy Carter, died of mesothelioma in 2008, and attributed it to his asbestos exposure from his military service during the Vietnam War.
While asbestos use in the U.S. military has dropped significantly in recent decades, the asbestos industry is booming in Iraq, Afghanistan and other war-torn countries. These nations continue to use the low-cost material to rebuild infrastructure as economically as possible.
Countries in the Middle East use asbestos to manufacture ceiling tiles, roofing shingles, pipe insulation, floor tiles, cement boards, drywall joint compounds and spray-on fireproofing. Those construction uses mirror asbestos use that took place generations ago in more developed countries such as the United States. Those U.S. production cycles were halted because of the dangers asbestos poses to public health.
Not one nation in the Middle East has ratified ILO Convention No. 162, an International Labour Organization measure aiming to establish proper health and safety regulations for asbestos worldwide. With no laws in Middle Eastern countries protecting workers or U.S. military members from asbestos, ongoing unregulated use of the material poses serious long-term health risks.
Older buildings in Iraq and Afghanistan were frequently destroyed or damaged by various munitions. Military operations have disturbed asbestos-containing materials, sending toxic fibers into the fierce desert winds that spread the contamination for miles. Even soldiers who were nowhere near the destruction may have been exposed. Soldiers and local residents often suffer environmental asbestos exposure because of the amount of asbestos circulating in the air in Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries in the Middle East.
Liability lawsuits in nine states — New York, North Carolina, Wyoming, Missouri, Minnesota, Georgia, Alabama, Illinois and California — were filed in 2009 against Kellogg, Brown and Root, an American construction company operating in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The lawsuits accused the company of putting the safety and health of U.S. soldiers and contractors serving in the Middle East in danger.
Many claims centered on environmental exposure. KBR was accused of producing open-air burn pits that allowed asbestos and other toxic chemicals into the air. The toxic smoke clearly put servicemen at risk. KBR denied the allegations.
Awareness organizations have been urging Afghanistan for years to curtail its asbestos use. Ban Asbestos of India and the South Asian Ban Asbestos Network, joined to write a letter of proclamation to the presidential palace in Kabul. Citing safety concerns, the groups asked the government to limit its use of asbestos.
Nearby Kazakhstan is one of the world’s biggest exporters of asbestos, shipping considerable amounts to Afghanistan. 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 and few public health concerns by medical professionals about either the handling of asbestos or its long-term health risks.
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.
View our resources for patients and familiesGet Help Today