Which Military Occupations Are at Risk of Asbestos-Related Cancers?

Veterans who served in any branch of the military between the 1930s and 1970s have a high risk of getting sick from asbestos, especially those who worked in construction or in shipyards. Military personnel used asbestos in ships, aircraft, trucks and barracks.

Before the 1980s, many personnel also used asbestos-containing equipment, putting service personnel from pipefitters to infantrymen in danger. Asbestos exposure among military occupational specialty varies, with some jobs having particularly high risks.

High-Risk Military Jobs
Military Branch High-Risk Occupations
Air Force Aircraft electrician, aircraft mechanic, aircraft metals technology specialist, boiler operator, combat engineer, environmental support specialist, fire protection specialist, vehicle maintenance specialist, welder
Army Aircraft mechanic, artilleryman, infantryman, combat engineer, vehicle mechanic
Coast Guard Cargo ship inspector, machinery technician, shipyard workers
Marine Corps Aircraft maintenance marines, automotive maintenance technicians, demolition specialists, Marine expeditionary units
Navy Boatswain’s mate, damage controlman, electrician’s mate, fire control technician, gunner’s mate, machinery repairman, machinist’s mate, metalsmith, pipefitter, radioman, seabee, water tender, welder, hull maintenance technician

For many who performed these military occupations, mesothelioma developed later in life. Even service members who didn’t work directly with asbestos could have encountered the toxin while on ships, living in military housing that contained asbestos building materials or through secondary exposure from contact with a servicemember with a high-risk job.

Key Facts About Asbestos Exposure in Military Occupations
  • Construction materials used in buildings and housing on military bases often contained asbestos.
  • Brakes, clutches, transmissions and gaskets in armored vehicles, trucks, tanks and military aircraft contained asbestos.
  • The military used asbestos extensively throughout ships and submarines for insulation, gaskets, packing, tape, pipes, valves and flanges.
  • Military firefighters once wore suits, gloves and even respirators that contained asbestos.

History of Asbestos in Military Occupations

Military veterans from all branches of the U.S. military have a higher risk of developing mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases. Occupational exposure is the most common form of asbestos contact, and the military relied heavily on asbestos for its durability and resistance to fire.

In the 1930s, the U.S. Navy started using asbestos on ships from the engine rooms to the deck flooring, walls and doors. Asbestos was a popular building material throughout all military branches, from the Army to the Coast Guard. The prevalence of its use put many military personnel at risk of repeated exposure while doing their everyday jobs.

Having employed a healthy working force, it is necessary to protect their health. Helmets and masks for sand blasters… masks for asbestos workers… and special physical exams must be made of all sand blasters, asbestos handlers…

Documentation indicates the military was becoming aware of asbestos’ health risks as early as the 1930s. As studies clearly linked asbestos to disease, the Navy continued to heavily use the material. 

The military began to limit asbestos use after 1975, but legacy asbestos in old machinery, base housing, facilities and various products still potentially puts soldiers and their families at risk. Today’s soldiers can also be exposed while deployed when buildings with asbestos are destroyed in combat.


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Navy Jobs Linked to Asbestos Exposure

Navy personnel working as boatswain’s mates, machinists, welders, pipefitters, electricians and fire control technicians had high risks of consistent asbestos exposure. Military veterans of the U.S. Navy have the highest risk of asbestos-related diseases because of widespread use of the mineral on ships. 

Asbestos use in the Navy reached its height during World War II and continued through the 1970s. Navy ships in particular used asbestos in hundreds of ways. For example, asbestos wrapped pipes and ventilation ducts to insulate them.

In 2020, the International Journal of Radiation Biology published a study analyzing the cause of death for 235,000 military personnel who participated in nuclear weapons tests from 1945 to 1962. The results showed no illnesses attributed to radiation exposure; however, the rate of mesothelioma in participants who served on Navy ships was high. 

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Construction and Maintenance 

Construction and maintenance jobs often put personnel in direct contact with asbestos. The material was a popular choice in numerous building materials and engine and machinery components. Navy personnel in these positions often encountered asbestos daily as part of their job.

Boatswain’s Mate

Boatswain’s mates (BMs) often spend more than half their careers directing ship activities and performing maintenance duties above and below deck. They handled high-exposure tasks like sanding asbestos paint and grinding asbestos floor tiles. These jobs were particularly hazardous below deck where ventilation was poor.

Boatswain’s Mate

Members of the U.S. Navy Construction Battalion (CBs), Seabees perform a wide range of construction projects, including clearing land, building bases and paving roads and runways. They are also skilled in welding, plumbing, carpentry and electrical work. These diverse duties frequently exposed veterans to thousands of asbestos-containing products once widely used in construction, from asbestos-laced gaskets to insulation to asbestos paint.


Storekeepers (SKs) receive and issue tools, supplies and other equipment on the ship. Although they did not directly handle asbestos as part of their duties, storekeepers often were exposed to the mineral in the cramped, unventilated rooms aboard ships.

It’s impossible to consider any occupation on Navy ships or submarines entirely safe from asbestos exposure. While some occupations were at higher risk than others, the widespread use of asbestos put all sailors in danger. Large vessels may have carried as many as 300 products containing asbestos. The toxin was even present in sleeping quarters.

Damage Control, Firefighting and Weapons Systems

Navy veterans responsible for firefighting, damage control and weapons systems experienced a high level of asbestos exposure. A lot of safety gear meant to protect them from extreme heat contained asbestos.

Damage Controlman

Damage controlmen (DCs) carry out firefighting and emergency repairs after enemy contact. They must maintain watertight closures, pipe fittings and equipment. Damage controlmen once wore asbestos fire-fighting suits, asbestos gloves and slippers made from sheet asbestos packing.

Damage Controlmen
Fire Control Technician

Fire control technicians (FTs) operate and maintain weapon systems on Navy submarines. They loaded and fired gun turrets filled with asbestos while wearing asbestos hoods and gloves to prevent burns. Access doors and hatches in platforms or bulkheads inside gun turrets used asbestos gaskets to seal out fumes and flames. In older submarines that used asbestos insulation, FTs were at a high risk of dangerous exposures.

Weapon system
Gunner’s Mate

Gunner’s mates (GMs) care for a ship’s armament, including machine guns, anti-aircraft artillery and guided missiles. They also operate smoke screen generators, depth charge mechanisms and ammunition hoists. GMs wore asbestos gloves to protect against burns while loading and firing ammunition. Firing heavy artillery also caused asbestos lagging to rip away from piping and insulation to fall from overhead, creating asbestos dust that circulated throughout the ship.

Guns on a Naval ship
Hull Maintenance Technician

Hull maintenance technicians (HTs) fabricate, install and repair various metal structures aboard Navy ships, including plumbing, valves and sanitation systems. HTs often breathed asbestos released from insulation, ventilation seals and pipe gaskets. They also performed firefighting duties and were exposed by old firefighting apparel.

Hull Technician
Water Tender

During World War II, water tenders (WTs) ensured the fires and boilers in the ship’s engine room operated efficiently. When WT duties required veterans to repair boilers, they often encountered loose asbestos insulation and fibers from frayed asbestos gaskets.

These essential occupations kept the ship and crew safe and ready for combat or emergencies, but the work left its toll. Navy veterans account for nearly a third of all malignant mesothelioma cases. 

Machinists and Technicians

Operating boilers and the radio and keeping machinery in prime working order are essential tasks on land and at sea. However, sailors who worked in these occupations encountered asbestos through the use of materials, parts and even protective equipment.

Aviation Machinist’s Mate

An aviation machinist’s mate repairs and maintains Navy aircraft on shore and at sea. These sailors used clamps fitted with asbestos pads while working on high-temperature machinery.

Boiler Technician

Boiler technicians operate and repair the powerful steam boilers that propel Navy ships across the seas. A 1951 Navy training manual instructed boiler workers to use asbestos sheets for gasket maintenance in air valve seats and cylinder head joints. Many wore asbestos gloves as standard safety equipment.

Boiler Workers
Electrician’s Mate

Electrician’s mates (EMs) operate and repair the ship’s electrical systems, including lights, power equipment, generators, motors and wiring. EMs performed duties in practically every ship compartment, presenting many opportunities for asbestos exposure. The Navy used asbestos to keep motors, generators and transformers from getting too hot. When EMs needed to fix an electrical system, they usually had to take off old insulation made of asbestos to put the new materials in place.

Electrician's Mate
Machinery Repairman

Machinery repairmen (MRs) use lathes, drill presses and other tools to repair a wide range of machinery aboard ships. The job often requires sailors to remove and install asbestos-laced gaskets. MRs also experienced exposure from asbestos insulation and sheet asbestos while servicing machinery or operating furnaces.

Machinery Repairman
Machinist’s Mate

Machinist’s mates (MMs) maintain and service the engines and equipment that power Navy ships. They fix engine components and machinery, including turbines, fuel pumps, air-conditioning systems and elevators. MMs once inspected and replaced materials containing asbestos. The greatest health risks likely stemmed from working long hours in engine rooms with asbestos materials like pipe insulation, gaskets and adhesives, increasing exposure and the risk of developing pleural mesothelioma or other diseases years later.


Radiomen (RMs) are responsible for maintaining the ship’s communication equipment. During World War II, RMs transmitted and decoded radio messages and made emergency repairs to radio equipment that housed asbestos. A Navy training manual from 1972 recommends that radiomen always install a heat shield made of asbestos or a similar substance to protect heat-sensitive parts of equipment.


Despite growing evidence of the dangers of asbestos, the Navy used asbestos in a variety of functions for insulation and fireproofing. Manuals often cited its use as the recommended procedure until the 1980s brought new regulations regarding asbestos use and handling. 

Metalwork and Welding

Navy occupations in metalwork and welding had a high risk of asbestos exposure because of the use of the material in heat-resistant equipment needed for these jobs. These workers also frequently wore protective clothing made from asbestos.


Metalsmiths shape, cut and weld sheet metal to make parts and repair any damage to the ship. Because of the high temperatures metalsmiths encountered while welding sheet metal and performing other tasks, they often wore protective gear containing asbestos. In a manual for a metalsmith training course, the Navy recommended that metalsmiths use a shield of asbestos board to protect their hands from the intense heat during welding jobs.


Molders pour molten metal to create metal molds and casings. They also operate a wide range of equipment in foundries. Asbestos was once widely used in protective equipment and as a fireproofing material in casings.


Navy pipefitters build and maintain a variety of pipe systems that span ships from bow to stern. Their work continually exposed them to asbestos because they had to remove contaminated lagging from pipers before they could begin repairs. Pipefitters also worked with loose asbestos and asbestos-containing gaskets, seals and insulation.


Steelworkers (SWs) build, weld and fabricate structures made of steel and sheet metal. Many Navy steelworkers used asbestos for fireproofing around welding sites.


Navy welders work on land and at sea. They use a variety of welding techniques to cut and join metals that serve important structural functions on ships. The 1950s edition of a Navy welding manual recommended using wet asbestos to prevent metals from expanding. It also instructed welders to use asbestos-laced paper for cast-iron welding for slowing cooling.


Asbestos use was common in the Navy since the material was strong, durable and useful for insulation and fireproofing. The heavy use of asbestos in ships and in shipyards is the reason that Navy veterans experienced the highest risk of asbestos exposure by MOS out of all the military branches.

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Army Jobs Linked to Asbestos Exposure

The U.S. Army began using asbestos in the 1930s to build bases, vehicles, aircraft, weapons and other gear. The mineral was once a common material for many heat- and fire-resistant applications. 

The Army is the largest branch of the armed forces and consists of smaller corps, divisions, brigades and battalions. Personnel carry out land-based operations around the world, including humanitarian support, peacekeeping and direct combat. Carrying out these duties put many service people at risk of MOS-related toxin exposure.

Aircraft and Vehicle Mechanics

Aircraft and vehicle mechanics were exposed to asbestos while performing routine maintenance work. The toxic fibers appeared in truck body fillers, brake pads, clutches, bearings and gaskets. Aircraft used asbestos in rotors, fuel systems, hydraulic systems and other parts that required heat resistance.


Artillerymen prepare and store ammunition and ensure weapons are regularly serviced and maintained. They often wore asbestos gloves to protect themselves from burns while handling hot artillery shells and machine gun barrels.

Combat Engineer

Combat engineers use explosives to clear barriers, putting them at high risk of asbestos exposure. Demolition of existing structures that widely used asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) could cause asbestos fibers found in roofing, flooring, insulation, wiring and pipes to become airborne.


Army infantrymen defend against land-based threats. They serve on fire teams and aid in the mobilization of vehicles, troops and weaponry. Many vehicles and weapons infantrymen used and maintained contained asbestos materials.

Asbestos use in new Army projects and construction stopped in the 1980s. However,  old barracks, vehicles and equipment still may expose large numbers of enlisted men and women to the toxin.

Air Force Jobs Linked to Asbestos Exposure

Air Force personnel spend most of their deployment flying, maintaining and repairing military aircraft that once used parts containing asbestos. Fighter, trainer and utility planes all utilized ACMs extensively in the engines, wiring, turbines, heat shields and insulation.

Aircraft Electrician and Mechanic

Aircraft electricians install, repair and operate electrical systems, while mechanics perform repairs and upkeep on military aircraft engines. This work often exposed them to asbestos components that insulated engine parts, gearboxes, brakes, clutches, wiring and other parts.

Aircraft Metals Technology Specialist

Aircraft Metals Technology Specialists are the welders of the Air Force. They create, repair and fit essential parts of all aircraft to keep them in perfect working order. Welders often worked with insulation, pipes, boilers and other components that released asbestos fibers into the air.

Boiler Operator

Boiler operators are responsible for operating and maintaining boilers and other mechanical equipment that regulate utilities like heating and cooling. Boilers contained many components made from asbestos, and operators were often exposed in close quarters while performing their duties.

Combat Engineer

Air Force combat engineers build new infrastructure, performing demolition services and detecting environmental hazards. Construction involved many ACMs, while demolition efforts disturbed asbestos fibers and sent them airborne, putting Air Force members at risk for exposure.

Environmental Support Specialist

Environmental support specialists ensure that Air Force activities comply with environmental regulations. They may have encountered asbestos while inspecting boiler systems, piping and cooling systems.

Fire Protection Specialist

Fire Protection Specialists keep military members and civilians safe by putting out fires. The firemen of the Air Force had a high asbestos exposure risk. Older protective gear contained asbestos in everything from hoods to gloves to face masks.

Vehicle Maintenance Specialist

These specialists inspect and repair all types of vehicles to keep them in good working order. Before asbestos regulations stopped the use of the toxin, vehicle maintenance specialists experienced regular exposure through their work with brakes, wiring, clutches and engine components.

Air Force veterans who served from the 1930s to the 1970s faced the highest risk of exposure. Since this time, regulations prohibit asbestos use. However, Air Force members may still encounter asbestos today in older facilities, aircraft and vehicles. 

Marine Corps Jobs Linked to Asbestos Exposure

U.S. Marine Corps veterans commonly experienced asbestos exposure on ships, aircraft and vehicles. Since the Marines often work hand in hand with the Navy, Marine veterans often experienced the same high risk of asbestos exposure as most Navy personnel. Navy vessels regularly transport Marines, and Navy aircraft initiate Marine Corps air missions.

Aircraft Maintenance Marines and Automotive Maintenance Technicians

Vehicle and aircraft mechanics come into contact with asbestos while performing routine bodywork with contaminated body filler, or while repairing engines that housed asbestos seals and gaskets. Some of the most dangerous tasks were removing and installing brake pads, clutches and wheel bearings containing asbestos.

Demolition Specialists

Demolition specialists destroy key infrastructure components like bridges and railroads to give Marines a tactical advantage. Demolition work can release asbestos fibers into the air. Building materials like roofing, drywall and concrete all often contained asbestos, making this a particularly dangerous occupation.

Marine Expeditionary Units

These small task forces of marines on amphibious ships are ready to intervene in any combat or crisis. Most Marines deployed on Navy vessels are part of an MEU. Navy ships and aircraft heavily used asbestos and had poor ventilation, allowing asbestos fibers to circulate in abundance and putting MEU members at risk.

The use of asbestos in the Marine Corps, as in the other branches, reached its peak in World War II but continued through the Vietnam War. Although asbestos use has significantly decreased since the 1970s, the long latency period means that veterans are still developing symptoms of asbestos-related diseases. Instances of exposure to legacy asbestos on ships and in older facilities can still happen today. 

Coast Guard Jobs Linked to Asbestos Exposure

Coast Guard members were often exposed to asbestos in shipyards and on ships that used asbestos as insulation and in fireproofing, ropes and mechanical parts. Veterans of the Coast Guard often experienced the same level of asbestos exposure as Navy veterans.

Machinery Technician

Machinery technicians handle the maintenance and repair of all types of machinery. Many engine parts and components contained asbestos, putting workers in danger of daily exposure.

Marine Inspectors and Maritime Enforcement Specialists

Marine inspectors and enforcement specialists had to enter poorly ventilated areas on ships to check the pump rooms, cargo tanks, insulation, pipes and heating systems. This put them at high risk of breathing in asbestos fibers. Coast Guard marine inspectors have a higher mortality rate compared to other branch officers.

Shipyard Workers

Shipyard workers who built and repaired vessels had high levels of asbestos exposure. Ships used ACMs throughout since it was durable and fireproof. These workers were also involved in manufacturing products that put them in consistent contact with asbestos.

Like other branches of the military, the risk of asbestos exposure for Coast Guard members has decreased since the 1970s. However, older housing, buildings and ships still present a danger.

Aaron Munz, Director of Veterans Department

“We have expertise in preparing what is critical to file a VA-claim. Without that expertise, it can be very challenging. It’s tough to understand what the VA is looking for. That’s where we can help.”

Aaron Munz, Director of Asbestos.com Veterans Department

What Should Veterans Do if They Were Exposed to Asbestos on the Job?

Veterans should pay close attention to symptoms and attend regular medical appointments for testing, diagnosis and treatment. Veterans who developed asbestos-related illnesses can file a VA claim to receive disability compensation.  

You must provide proof that your exposure during military service caused your disease. Keeping detailed records is a must to verify your claims. Necessary documentation includes service records that state your occupation, Form DD214 (discharge documents), medical records during service and a doctor’s statement with a diagnosis and confirmation that exposure during service caused the disease.

Mesothelioma VA claims require documentation of veteran status, medical diagnosis and exposure history. A VA-accredited representative can assist patients with assembling the appropriate evidence to substantiate the claim and write up the exposure summary. Getting help can expedite the claims process.

Common Questions About Asbestos Exposure in the Military

How can veterans know if they were exposed to asbestos in the military?

The location of service, dates of service, military occupations and health records can all help to verify that asbestos exposure happened during a veteran’s time in service. MOS-related toxin exposure is common across all branches of the military. Veterans who worked in certain occupations like construction or shipyard work, or who performed work at certain job sites during the 1930s to 1970s, had a high risk of asbestos exposure.

Filing a claim for benefits with the VA requires proof that at least 50% of the veteran’s asbestos exposure came from military exposure. Evidence that can prove a claim includes medical records, service records listing job or MOS, and a doctor’s statement that the health condition stems from asbestos exposure during the time of military service.

What symptoms should veterans watch out for after asbestos exposure?

Asbestos-related diseases have some common symptoms like shortness of breath, chronic dry cough, fatigue, nausea, chest pain, back pain or weight loss. Fluid buildup in the lungs (pleural effusion) is one of the most common symptoms. Patients may also experience fever, muscle weakness, difficulty swallowing, swelling of the arms and face or loss of appetite. 

Asbestos-related diseases don’t show symptoms until 20 to 50 years after the initial exposure occurred. This long latency period makes it especially important for veterans with a high risk of asbestos exposure to attend regular physical exams and discuss their health with their doctor. Chest X-rays and CT scans may help to detect the disease in its early stages so the patient can begin treatment.

How can veterans exposed to asbestos on the job apply for VA benefits?

Honorably discharged veterans can submit VA Form 21-526 along with an exposure summary, discharge paperwork, verification of a medical diagnosis and medical records in person, via mail or online. The VA displays a confirmation page to online filers and sends a letter to acknowledge the receipt of mailed claims.

The VA provides benefits on a percentage scale, based on the veteran’s disability level. Veterans can work with VA-accredited Claims Agents, to get help filing for benefits and writing an asbestos exposure summary detailing how, when and where the exposure happened. Doing so can speed up the processing time from an average of 8 months to 4.

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