U.S. Military Occupations and Asbestos Exposure

Navy veterans account for an estimated 30% of all mesothelioma patients

Veterans in every branch who served between the 1930s and mid-1970s are at high risk of developing asbestos-related cancers and respiratory conditions because many of their military occupations exposed them to harmful levels of the toxic substance during this era of rampant asbestos use.

Whether servicemen worked as pipefitters, mechanics, radiomen or infantrymen, they eventually came into contact with deadly asbestos at some point of their military career. Some of these men also worked in various parts of ships and other vessels where exposed asbestos could cause them harm.

Some of those high-risk jobs included:

Navy Jobs

  • Boatswain’s mate
  • Damage controlman
  • Electrician’s mate
  • Fire control technician
  • Gunner’s mate
  • Hull maintenance technician
  • Machinery repairman
  • Machinist’s mate
  • Metalsmith
  • Pipefitter
  • Radioman
  • Seabee
  • Water tender
  • Welder

Army Jobs

  • Aircraft mechanic
  • Infantryman
  • Artilleryman
  • Vehicle mechanic

Air Force Jobs

  • Aircraft mechanic
  • Environmental support specialist

Marine Corps Jobs

  • Marines deployed on Navy ships
  • Mechanics

History of Asbestos Occupations

Starting in the 1930s, the U.S. Navy used materials containing asbestos to build, repair and maintain its growing fleet of ships. Large quantities of the cancer-causing mineral once contaminated engine rooms, deck flooring, walls, doors and miles of piping. Most areas on Navy ships needed fireproofing — a job asbestos insulation, lagging and other products performed well, and at little cost.

Some Navy ratings that put sailors in close contact with asbestos:

  • Hull technicians
  • Boiler tenders
  • Shipfitters
  • Engine mechanics
  • Welders

Unfortunately, sailors often released asbestos fibers into the air while performing normal work duties. Breathing the dust increased the risk of serious lung diseases like asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma later in life.

Harmful exposures continued even after 1975, when the Navy officially restricted asbestos use on ships and began phasing it out of new projects.

While Navy veterans faced the highest risk of asbestos-related disease, veterans from all branches of the U.S. military have suffered repeated exposures throughout their service. The Army and Air Force used asbestos in electric wiring, insulation and in brake and clutch pads for vehicles and aircraft. The Marines and Coast Guard commonly used it in ships, airplanes and armored vehicles.

The high costs of asbestos-related cancers have led many veterans and their families to seek compensation from companies that manufactured these harmful products. Lawsuits, settlements and bankruptcy trust funds can help veterans afford treatment and recover lost wages and other expenses.

Navy Jobs Linked to Asbestos Exposure

The outbreak of World War II spurred the U.S. Navy to build and deploy thousands of new ships. From frigates and escorts to battleships and aircraft carriers, these vessels brought the fight to the enemy in both the European and Pacific theaters.

After the war, many veterans carried wounds from their service — not from enemy fire, but from microscopic fibers released on their own ships. The list of Navy jobs that put sailors and officers at risk for asbestos-related cancer and lung disease is long and varied. Some high-risk Navy jobs include:

  • Boatswain's Mate

    Boatwaint'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 performed dangerous activities like sanding asbestos paint and grinding asbestos floor tiles.

    Marc Chamot and Glenn Hatch, former BMs, recall the many dangers of the occupation. "This ship was laden with dangerous levels of asbestos, mercury metals and leaded paints," said Chamot, who served aboard USS Vogelgesang, a Navy destroyer. Hatch, active during the Korean War, worked with the same materials and slept in quarters with asbestos products all around. He now suffers from an asbestos-related illness.

  • Boiler Technician

    Boiler Tenders

    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 safety equipment.

    John Anthony Starets worked in the fire room of USS Uhlmann from 1959 to 1963, and vividly recalls how much asbestos filled the ship. He remembers his fellow servicemen mixing loose asbestos with water to form a thick paste for coating joints. “The air would be full of dust,” he said, “[and] the asbestos was just like flour.”

    John Anthony Starets worked in the fire room of USS Uhlmann from 1959 to 1963, and vividly recalls how much asbestos filled the ship. He remembers his fellow servicemen mixing loose asbestos with water to form a thick paste for coating joints. “The air would be full of dust,” he said, “[and] the asbestos was just like flour.”

    William Mansir, another boiler technician, removed and replaced asbestos-filled gaskets in packing materials. He developed mesothelioma in 2011 and filed a lawsuit against John Crane, Inc. and 11 other asbestos manufacturers the following year. The jury decided in favor of Mansir and awarded him approximately $2.4 million.

  • Damage Controlman

    Damage Controlmen

    Damage controlmen (DCs) carry out firefighting and emergency repairs after enemy contact. They must maintain watertight closures, pipe fittings and equipment for damage control and firefighting.

    Damage controlmen once wore asbestos firefighting suits, asbestos gloves and slippers made from sheet asbestos packing.

    Michael Kastanis died of asbestos-related gastrointestinal cancer, which he likely developed after damage control training courses exposed him to asbestos. Kastanis also worked with asbestos while servicing warships docked at Boston Naval Shipyard and the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor.

  • Electrician's Mate

    Electricians 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 materials to insulate motors, generators and light transformers. Almost every electrical system on the ship that needed maintenance required EMs to remove and replace asbestos insulation products.

    Dennis Woodard served the Navy as an electrician's mate and a machinist's mate from 1961 to 1965. He was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2007. A California court awarded him $14.4 million, and his wife $2.5 million, after deciding several manufacturers failed to warn him about the dangers of asbestos products.

  • Fire Control Technician

    Fire Control Technician

    Fire control technicians (FTs) operate and maintain weapon systems on Navy submarines. In older submarines that used asbestos insulation, FTs were at a high risk of dangerous exposures.

    FTs 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.

  • Gunner's Mate

    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.

    Protective asbestos gloves reduced the risk of burns while GMs loaded and fired ammunition, but the gloves would release toxic fibers as they aged. When they fired heavy artillery, asbestos lagging would rip away from piping aboard the ship, and insulation fell from overhead. This created asbestos dust that circulated throughout the ship.

    Joseph Henson Norris worked aboard USS Bremerton as a GM from 1955 to 1957. He was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2005, and later filed a lawsuit against Crane Co., a manufacturer of metal valves that housed asbestos gaskets and packing. The jury concluded that Crane's valves and the company's negligence were important factors in causing Norris' mesothelioma. They awarded him more than $3.9 million in total damages.

  • Hull Maintenance Technician

    Hull Technician

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

    One Navy veteran who served as a hull technician from 1978 to 1981 wrote an anonymous blog post about his encounters with asbestos after basic training. He claimed that many of his shipmates were unaware of asbestos risks, and never wore protective clothing while working with the material. "Through my whole 18 months on board I got a large dose of asbestos from working on boilers to repairing of piping systems and [wearing] old firefighting apparel," he wrote.

  • Machinery Repairman

    Machinery Repairman

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

    Former machinery technician and repairman Virgin Junge worked with asbestos gaskets, flanges and packing while working with the Navy and the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. Junge often scraped, sanded and wire-brushed these products, releasing asbestos fibers into the air. In 1993, Junge was diagnosed with asbestosis. He filed a lawsuit against a number of companies that manufactured asbestos materials, including Garlock, Inc.

  • Machinist's Mate

    Electricians 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.

    Actor Steve McQueen portrayed a machinist's mate in the 1966 film, “The Sand Pebbles.” Years after this famous role, McQueen was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma, an asbestos-related cancer that took his life in 1980. He is perhaps the most famous person to die from this rare disease.

    Former MMs David Taylor and David Kelemen filed lawsuits after developing asbestos-related illnesses. Taylor sued John Crane, Inc., and a jury awarded him about $3 million. Kelemen was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2007. The court ordered multiple companies that made the asbestos products he handled to pay $35.5 million to cover medical expenses, lost wages and punitive damages.

  • Metalsmith

    Metalsmiths

    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 recommends that metalsmiths use a shield of asbestos board to protect their hands from the intense heat during welding jobs.

    Charles Sparks worked as a metalsmith aboard the World War II-era cruiser USS Bremerton. His duties required him to saw through asbestos gaskets and insulation around pipes, which he claims caused him to develop mesothelioma. Sparks and his wife, Betty, filed a claim against the asbestos manufacturer Owens-Illinois, Inc. in 1995. The jury laid complete blame and liability on the company, and the verdict was upheld on appeal.

  • Pipefitter

    shipfitters, Pipefitters and Asbestos Exposure

    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 pipes before they could begin repairs. Pipefitters also worked with loose asbestos and asbestos-containing gaskets, seals and insulation.

    William Smith, a welder and pipefitter who served aboard USS Valley Forge from 1955 to 1974, recalls mixing loose asbestos with water and other ingredients. He and other pipefitters would cover pipes with the asbestos paste and wrap them with asbestos cloth for insulation. Smith was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1999.

    Another pipefitter and welder named Ulysses Collins developed mesothelioma after working for several shipyards, including Hunters Point Naval Shipyard and the Mare Island Naval Shipyard. The disease claimed his life in 2005, but surviving family members filed a lawsuit naming 17 companies that made asbestos products he worked with. A jury awarded the Collins family $10 million.

  • Radioman

    Radioman

    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.

    The bases of radio tubes were once made with Bakelite plastic molding compounds, which often used asbestos as filler. 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.

    Former Navy radioman Ed Chlapowski transmitted the famous warning on December 7, 1941: “This is no drill. Pearl Harbor is being attacked by the forces of the Imperial government of Japan. This is no drill." Chlapowski worked briefly at the Todd Shipyard after retiring from the Navy, and later joined the Federal Aviation Administration. He died of mesothelioma in 2011.

  • Seabee

    Seabees

    Seabees are members of the U.S. Navy Construction Battalion (CB). This group performs a wide range of construction projects, including clearing land, building bases and paving vital roads and runways. Seabees are a diverse group of craftsmen, skilled in welding, plumbing, electrical work and carpentry.

    These duties frequently exposed veterans to thousands of asbestos-containing products once widely used for construction. Many Seabees used asbestos-laced gaskets in steam lines and cut asbestos lagging sheets for insulation. On ships and submarines, they repaired or replaced asbestos insulation every deployment. And on land, Seabees encountered asbestos in pipe insulation, paint, boilers and tunnels.

  • Welder

    Welders

    Navy welders perform metalwork 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 1950 edition of a Navy welding manual recommends using wet asbestos to prevent metals from expanding. It also instructs welders to use asbestos-laced paper for cast-iron welding for slower cooling.

    Gerald Black worked as a welder at Todd Shipyards from 1942 to 1945. According to Black's testimony in a 1977 workers' compensation claim, other workers threw asbestos-containing material "like snowballs" and he "had to wallow in it to do [his] welding." He even lost a glove because his worksite was so dusty and dirty he couldn't see.

    Black passed away from an asbestos-related lung disease in 1981, but won several court victories over Todd Shipyards and other parties. He was awarded an unspecified amount of benefits and damages related to his past exposures.

Compensation for Veterans

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Additional Navy Jobs at Risk

It's impossible to consider that a single occupation on Navy ships and submarines was safe from asbestos exposure. Even veterans who did not work with the material directly may have been exposed to asbestos concealed in their sleeping quarters or countless other compartments they worked in aboard the ship. Some estimates say larger vessels may have carried as many as 300 products containing asbestos.

Other Navy jobs that may have faced frequent exposures to asbestos include:

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.


Molder

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.


Steelworker

Steelworkers (SWs) build, weld and fabricate structures made of steel and sheet metal. Many Navy steelworkers were exposed to asbestos while using the material for fireproofing around welding sites.


Storekeeper

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.


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 were exposed to loose asbestos insulation and fibers from frayed asbestos gaskets.

Army Jobs Linked to Asbestos Exposure

The U.S. Army carries out land-based operations around the world, including humanitarian support, peacekeeping and direct combat. It is the largest branch of the Armed Forces comprised of many smaller armies, corps, divisions, brigades and battalions.

Like the Navy, the Army began using materials and products containing asbestos in the 1930s. The toxic mineral was once a common ingredient in products the Army used to build bases, vehicles, aircraft, weapons and gear.

U.S. Army occupations linked to asbestos exposure include:

Artilleryman

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

Infantryman

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 housed asbestos materials.

Vehicle Mechanic

Vehicle mechanics were exposed to asbestos while performing routine maintenance work on wheeled vehicles. The toxic fibers were once concealed in body fillers, brake pads, clutches, bearings and gaskets. Army aircraft mechanics were also exposed to asbestos while working on rotors, fuel systems, hydraulic systems and other parts that required heat resistance.

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Air Force Jobs Linked to Asbestos Exposure

Air Force personnel spend most of their deployment flying, maintaining and repairing military aircraft, including fighter, trainer and utility planes. The Air Force once used parts containing asbestos to build aircraft components like engines, wiring, turbines, heat shields and insulation.

Air Force veterans who served from the 1930s to the 1970s faced the highest risk of exposure, but it's possible that asbestos is still present in aircraft today. When not in flight, Air Force members may have been exposed to asbestos materials used to construct their bases, aircraft and vehicles. For example, Air Force vehicle mechanics faced asbestos exposure while working on a variety of auto parts.

Air Force occupations linked to asbestos exposure include:

Aircraft Mechanic

Aircraft mechanics and maintenance technicians perform upkeep and repairs on military planes. They maintain and overhaul aircraft engines and other systems that keep aircraft operating safely. This work often exposed them to asbestos components that insulated engine parts, gear boxes, brakes, clutches, wiring and other components.


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.

Marine Corps Jobs Linked to Asbestos Exposure

From World War II, when asbestos use surged, to the Vietnam War, U.S. Marine Corps veterans were exposed to asbestos on ships, aircraft and vehicles.

Navy vessels regularly transport Marines by sea, and Navy aircraft initiate Marine Corps air missions. Because these branches have a long history of working hand-in-hand, Marines sometimes experienced the high risk of asbestos exposure common among Navy personnel.

Although asbestos use has significantly declined since the 1970s, Vietnam era veterans may have been exposed to large amounts of products containing asbestos in transport ships and other vehicles used during early Vietnam deployments.

Marine Corps jobs that may have put veterans at risk for harmful exposures to asbestos include:

Marines Deployed on any Navy Ship

Navy ships had poor ventilation. An abundance of asbestos fibers often circulated throughout ship compartments, exposing sailors and marines. The toxic mineral was often released from insulation around pipes, engines and boilers. It could also be found in the ship's dining and sleeping quarters.


Mechanics

Vehicle and aircraft mechanics may have been exposed to asbestos while performing routine bodywork with contaminated body fillers, 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.

Additional Resources

  1. Navy Enlisted Job Descriptions & Qualifications. (n.d.). U.S. Navy. Retrieved from http://usmilitary.about.com/library/milinfo/navyjobs/navyjobs2/blhtatf.htm
  2. Bartrip, Peter. (2006). Beyond the Factory Gates: Asbestos and Health in Twentieth century America.New York: Continuum. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=omITYxF_eWEC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false
  3. U.S. EPA. (2015, December 4). North Ridge Estates Superfund Site. Retrieved from http://yosemite.epa.gov/r10/cleanup.nsf/sites/nre
  4. U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. (n.d.). Compensation: Asbestos Exposure. Retrieved from http://www.benefits.va.gov/COMPENSATION/claims-postservice-exposures-asbestos.asp

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