Navy veterans are the most likely to have faced asbestos exposure in the military.
Asbestos exposure most commonly occurred on ships and in shipyards.
Asbestos on ships was most prevalent prior to the 1970s.
Various resources are available for Navy veterans facing asbestos-related illnesses.
Asbestos was used frequently throughout the military for fireproofing and heat resistance, and was prevalent throughout Navy bases, especially on ships and in shipyards. As a result, the majority of veterans that are diagnosed with mesothelioma, lung cancer and other asbestos-related diseases are Navy veterans.
Navy Veterans and Asbestos Exposure
There were many ways that Navy veterans could have been exposed to asbestos. At-risk occupations such as pipefitters and shipbuilders could have been exposed during ship construction when handling and fitting asbestos products. Repairmen, hull maintenance specialists, boiler technicians and machinists have also faced exposure when dealing with damaged asbestos materials, as well as shipbreakers when dismantling vessels for parts and reselling. When intact, asbestos may not pose a risk, but when materials are cut, trimmed or broken, the toxin could become airborne and lead to dangerous exposure.
Navy Ship and Shipyard Exposure
One of the most common ways that Navy veterans have been exposed is through everyday exposure on the ships. Navy veterans have attested to asbestos dust falling from the ceilings in their living barracks when they faced impact. Areas at the lowest parts of the ship were not only the most likely to contain asbestos, but also put Navy personnel at the highest risk of asbestos exposure due to poor ventilation and potential for a high concentration of asbestos fibers that could then be easily inhaled or ingested.
Asbestos Risk by Ship Area
- Battery directors
- Berthing spaces/sleeping quarters
- Captain and Admiral cabins
- Chain lockers
- Junior officer quarters
- Mess deck
- Mess halls
- Open bridge areas
- Pilot house
- Sick bay
- Powder and shot magazine
- Ward room
- Boiler room
- Damage control area
- Engine room
- Propulsion room
- Pump room
Before the dangers of asbestos became well-known across the United States, it was viewed as a convenient material offering durability and protection from high temperatures and fires. As a result, the material was used throughout shipyards and ship construction for insulation, to help prevent fires from spreading and to withstand combat. Asbestos was prevalent throughout various parts of ship construction, particularly in areas that would face high heat or frequent, heavy use.
Common Asbestos Products in Ships and Shipyards
- Bedding components
- Brakes and brake linings
- Gaskets Grinders
- Thermal components
Asbestos use peaked in 1973. Prior to the 1970s, it was used freely throughout naval vessels, particularly in World War II, which is when the U.S. Navy grew rapidly. Asbestos use declined in the late 1970s and after, while laws and regulations were put in place that restricted or prohibited its use to protect consumers. However, the risk continued and still does today as materials and vessels built prior to the 1970s are still in use. Specific vessels that were known to have been constructed with asbestos include:
- Aircraft carriers
- Amphibious ships
- Auxiliary ships
- Destroyer escorts
- Escort carriers
- Merchant marine ships
- Patrol boats
Many vessels are no longer out on the water, but still reside in shipyards or historic sites. Their structures continue to pose a risk, especially as they deteriorate from old age and years of use, leaving more asbestos materials on board at risk of becoming airborne. Some shipyards have become designated Superfund sites after being identified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a contaminated area that pose a health or environmental risk and in need of professional cleanup. Superfund sites include Delta Shipyard, SBA Shipyard, Puget Sound Naval Shipyard Complex, Norfolk Naval Shipyard and many others.
Asbestos Regulations and Precautions for the Navy
One of the first efforts to control asbestos and associated risks is the Asbestos Medical Surveillance Program (AMSP), launched by the United States Navy in the late 1970s. One of the largest programs of its kind, the AMSP keeps a record of all service members and civilian employees with a history of occupational asbestos exposure. Enrolled members may have their medical history, physical examinations, spirometry and chest X-ray results recorded and maintained in the AMSP registry. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) continue to influence the program, contributing to asbestos monitoring improvements.
In 1975, the Navy instituted a policy designed to remove and replace asbestos materials, insulation in particular, with non-asbestos alternatives. This applied to asbestos insulation that had to be removed or needed repairs. In 1979, the policy was revised to include insulation in high-maintenance areas, where repairs weren’t necessary, but would likely be necessary in the future.
Navy Mesothelioma Risk
Military veterans make up the largest group of individuals diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma, as well as other asbestos illnesses. Of all types of veterans, Navy veterans face the most diagnoses due to the prevalence of asbestos in shipyards and ships. Mesothelioma symptoms can take 10 – 50 years to develop because of the cancer’s long latency period, so many veterans are only now being diagnosed, decades after completing their military service. Family members of veterans should also be aware of the risks of secondary exposure.
Navy veterans, shipyard workers and others that have worked on these naval vessels and in the shipyards should understand potential mesothelioma symptoms and seek medical care immediately if they are suspected. The earlier a patient begins treatment, the more likely they are to have a better prognosis. Veterans have additional resources available to them, particularly through the Department of Veterans Affairs. There are designated treatment centers dedicated to providing veterans with specialized care. VA benefits and financial compensation options like VA claims, disability compensation and asbestos trust funds are also available to help with costs associated with treatment and other aspects of a cancer diagnosis.