Asbestos exposure can cause a wide range of diseases. This includes deadly cancers like mesothelioma and noncancerous illnesses like asbestosis. Veterans are at an increased risk of asbestos-related diseases due to the widespread use of asbestos in the U.S. Armed Forces. Fortunately, the military offers medical care and financial compensation to those affected.
How Asbestos Exposure Causes Diseases
Asbestos is a durable mineral once used in thousands of products, such as construction materials and insulation. If these products were damaged or worn down, they could send asbestos fibers into the surrounding air — and those nearby could inhale or swallow the toxic mineral.
Microscopic asbestos fibers could then get stuck in the body and irritate healthy tissues and organs. The human body can’t break down asbestos, and the fibers can cause long-term damage over time. Some may even develop cancer if the irritation causes healthy cells to mutate into cancerous ones.
Asbestos-related diseases and cancers include:
- Mesothelioma and other cancers
- Atelectasis (lung collapse)
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Pleural plaques
- Pleural thickening
Video Summary: In this video, VA-accredited attorney Eric Hall explains why U.S. veterans are at risk of asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma. He also breaks down how affected veterans can access military benefits and medical treatment. Call (877) 450-8973 to get started. View Transcript
Veterans who served in the military between the 1930s and the 1980s were likely exposed to asbestos while they were on active duty. Usually, if you’ve developed an asbestos-related disease, you developed that disease because you had an excessive amount of exposure to asbestos. If a veteran believes they were exposed to asbestos while serving in the military, we encourage them to call the Mesothelioma Veterans Center so that we can work together to help them file for VA benefits.
The VA will recognize any asbestos-related disease as long as your asbestos exposure happened while you were on active duty in the military. In addition to VA benefits, the Mesothelioma Veterans Center can connect veterans with world-renowned physicians and nurses on staff that can answer any of your treatment questions. We encourage veterans to call and find out how we can help them.
Who Is at Risk of Asbestos-Related Diseases?
Today, thousands of people develop asbestos-related conditions each year — and sadly, U.S. veterans are at an especially high risk.
The U.S. military relied on asbestos to build ships, bases, vehicles, and planes between the 1930s and 1980s. The dangers of asbestos were largely unknown during this time, as manufacturers hid the truth to keep profits high. As a result, veterans make up 33% of all those diagnosed with mesothelioma.
Veterans diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases can pursue benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) as well as legal compensation from asbestos product manufacturers.
Types of Asbestos-Related Diseases
Asbestos exposure can cause several types of life-threatening cancers, dangerous but noncancerous diseases, and a few low-risk health problems.
There is no way to predict what type of asbestos disease (if any) someone will suffer from if they’ve been exposed. It depends on where the asbestos fibers end up getting stuck in the body, among other factors not fully understood by medical professionals.
Below, get a breakdown of common asbestos-related diseases and how they develop.
Mesothelioma & Other Cancers
Asbestos is a known carcinogen linked to several types of cancers. The most common of these is mesothelioma, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Mesothelioma is a cancer that can form in the linings of the lungs (pleura), abdomen (peritoneum), heart (pericardium), and testes (tunica vaginalis).
Walter, a U.S. Navy veteran, developed mesothelioma decades after his military service. Walter was a boiler tender in the Navy and knew he worked around asbestos — but was never informed of its dangers.
“I asked them what the material was made out of and they told me it was asbestos. It didn’t kill anybody on the spot that’s for sure, but it took years later when it started catching up with us. But, my understanding [is] that the powers-that-be knew [of the risks].”
– Walter, U.S. Navy Veteran
Other cancers linked to asbestos exposure include:
- Colon cancer
- Laryngeal cancer
- Lung cancer
- Ovarian cancer
- Rectal cancer
- Stomach cancer
Asbestosis is a non-cancerous but life-threatening disease that occurs when asbestos fibers get stuck in the alveoli, which are tiny air pockets in the lungs that swap oxygen for carbon dioxide. Asbestos fibers irritate the alveoli, causing scarring of the lungs and decreased lung function.
Common symptoms of asbestosis include:
- Chest pain
- Constant cough
- Shortness of breath
- Swelling of the fingers (clubbing)
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
Asbestosis is also linked to other asbestos-related diseases. According to the Mayo Clinic, having asbestosis may increase the risk of lung cancer. This is even more true for those who regularly smoke cigarettes.
There’s no cure for asbestosis — the Cleveland Clinic notes that the lung damage is permanent. However, supplemental oxygen and physical therapy can help ease some of the symptoms. A lung transplant may also be needed in serious cases.
Conrad, a World War II veteran, was diagnosed with asbestosis after serving as an electrician in his post-war career. He later took legal action against the manufacturers of the asbestos-based products that harmed him to secure financial compensation.
Atelectasis is the medical term for when a lung collapses. A specific subset of this condition called rounded atelectasis is very prevalent in those exposed to asbestos.
Rounded atelectasis occurs when the lung lining becomes inflamed and constricts. Microscopic asbestos fibers embedded in the lungs can cause this type of inflammation. The lung then collapses near the pleura and causes a bulge.
Atelectasis may also occur as a side effect to other asbestos-related lung diseases, such as asbestosis, or as a complication from surgery.
If someone goes in for a chest X-ray or another type of imaging scan, the atelectasis may be mistaken for a cancerous tumor.
Fortunately, doctors can treat atelectasis using different methods, including breathing exercises, breathing tubes, and surgery. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) note that atelectasis often improves.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a group of conditions that limit lung function. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), these conditions include emphysema and bronchitis.
COPD develops after long-term exposure to toxic chemicals that irritate the lungs. Over time, the lung damage leads to symptoms like a chronic cough, shortness of breath, and fatigue.
While smoking causes COPD in many cases, exposure to asbestos may also lead to this condition. For example, the VA granted benefits to a veteran who claimed he developed COPD from being exposed to asbestos and other chemicals while serving in the Vietnam War.
There’s no cure for COPD, but treatments like medications, oxygen therapy, and physical therapy can help patients manage their symptoms.
If you or a loved one has an asbestos-related illness like COPD, medical and financial help may be available. Get a free veterans packet for more information.
Pleural effusions occur when fluid builds up in the lung lining, making it difficult for the affected person to breathe. Asbestos fibers may cause pleural effusions by irritating the lung lining and causing excess fluid production.
Symptoms of pleural effusions include:
- A dry cough that won’t go away
- Chest pain
- Difficulty breathing
That said, many who develop pleural effusions do not have symptoms, according to the VA’s Veterans Health Library.
Effusions are often seen in patients with pleural mesothelioma, as the cancer causes irritation that leads to fluid filling the lung lining.
Pleural effusions may resolve within a few months after they develop, and if they don’t, doctors can drain them using a needle (thoracentesis) or a catheter. Doctors may also use medical-grade talc to dry out the pleura and prevent fluid buildup.
It is common for effusions to recur (come back), however. They can even lead to another asbestos-related lung condition called diffuse pleural thickening.
Diffuse Pleural Thickening
In cases of diffuse pleural thickening, the lung lining becomes stiff and scarred, leading to difficulty breathing.
Diffuse pleural thickening can be caused by asbestos exposure. It may also be a symptom of other asbestos-related diseases like pleural effusions or pulmonary fibrosis. This is because the body’s reaction to these other asbestos-related diseases can cause the pleura to thicken.
The British Lung Foundation (BLF) notes that diffuse pleural thickening doesn’t cause severe symptoms, so treatments are not usually needed. That said, doctors can help patients improve their breathing and manage the other conditions that may have caused the pleura to thicken.
Pleural plaques are buildups of collagen, a natural protein, that appear in the lining of the lungs. The collagen fibers harden into small clumps as part of the body’s immune response to asbestos fibers.
There are no symptoms associated with pleural plaques, and they do not pose a threat to human health. However, recent studies have noted that those with pleural plaques may have a higher risk of mesothelioma or asbestos lung cancer due to their asbestos exposure.
Other Asbestos-Related Diseases
- Peritoneal effusion: This is fluid buildup in the abdominal lining. It is also known as ascites and may be caused by peritoneal mesothelioma. Peritoneal effusions can lead to abdominal pain, loss of appetite, and weight gain, according to the NCI.
- Pericardial effusion: This occurs when fluid builds up in the lining of the heart. Symptoms include rapid heartbeat, swelling of the limbs, and chest pain.
- Pleural fibrosis: This is a term used to describe scarring of the lung lining. It may cause breathing problems or even failure of the respiratory system.
- Pleurisy: Also known as pleuritis, pleurisy is a condition where the lung lining becomes inflamed. Pleurisy causes pain during breathing and is often associated with pleural effusions and atelectasis, according to the Mayo Clinic.
- Pulmonary fibrosis: While pleural fibrosis indicates the lung lining has been damaged, pulmonary fibrosis indicates the lungs themselves have been scarred. According to the American Lung Association (ALA), pulmonary fibrosis prevents the lungs from properly expanding. The body gets less oxygen as a result.
Legal Options for Asbestos-Related Diseases
The manufacturers of asbestos-based products knew people could get sick from exposure decades before the public did. Asbestos companies did not warn the public or the U.S. military — instead, they suppressed the risks to keep making money.
Today, those suffering from an asbestos-related disease can pursue financial compensation from these manufacturers through legal action.
Legal compensation is awarded through:
- Lawsuits: Through a mesothelioma lawsuit, manufacturers may be forced to compensate victims for causing their asbestos-related illness. These lawsuits award $1 million on average.
- Asbestos trust funds: Some manufacturers of asbestos-based products declared bankruptcy to avoid being sued. However, these companies were forced to establish trust funds so victims would still get compensated. An estimated $30 billion is currently available in asbestos trust funds.
No branch of the U.S. military or government will face legal action. Further, filing a lawsuit or trust fund claim does not prohibit a veteran from receiving VA benefits.
Help for Veterans With Asbestos-Related Diseases
Older U.S. veterans are at a very high risk of diseases caused by asbestos since the military relied on this substance in its ships, bases, vehicles, planes, and shipyards. Thankfully, veterans who got sick after being exposed to asbestos while serving can file for a wide range of VA benefits.
VA benefits include:
- Medical care from some of the best mesothelioma doctors
- Monthly financial payouts
- Survivor benefits for qualifying family members
- Upcoming treatments through clinical trials in select cases
The Mesothelioma Veterans Center is dedicated to helping all veterans with asbestos-related diseases access the benefits they may deserve. Our team is well-prepared to help you pursue VA benefits and other forms of compensation.
Questions About Asbestos-Related Diseases
How long can asbestos-related diseases take to develop?
It typically takes 20-50 years for the health effects of asbestos-related diseases to become apparent. As a result, most patients diagnosed with asbestos illnesses are in their 70s.
That said, there have been instances of people in their 20s and 30s — and even teenagers and children — who have developed mesothelioma and and other asbestos-related diseases.
Can I pursue compensation for asbestos exposure?
Yes. You may be able to receive compensation if you got sick after being exposed to asbestos.
If you were exposed to asbestos but do not have an asbestos-related illness, keep a close watch on your health. Make sure to tell your doctor about your exposure history, as you may qualify for compensation if you later develop an asbestos disease.
What types of asbestos can cause illnesses?
There are six types of asbestos, and all types have the potential to cause disease.
Asbestos fibers are broken up into two major groups: amphibole and serpentine. Most types of asbestos (amosite, anthophyllite, crocidolite, actinolite, and tremolite) belong to the amphibole group. Only chrysotile asbestos belongs to the serpentine group.
Amphibole was sometimes thought to be more dangerous since the fibers are straight and sharper.
However, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded that any type of asbestos increases the risk of lung cancer or mesothelioma. All asbestos types have the potential to cause cancer of the ovaries or larynx as well.
How can you prevent an asbestos-related disease?
The only way to prevent an asbestos-related disease is to limit your asbestos exposure as much as possible.
If you’ve already been exposed, document whether you worked around asbestos at your job and if you start to show possible symptoms of an asbestos-related disease.
If you aren’t sure how or where you were exposed, get in touch with a lawyer. Mesothelioma attorneys can help you pinpoint your exposure and identify the products you were exposed to.
How many people die from asbestos related-diseases each year?
Asbestosis, mesothelioma, and asbestos lung cancer kill a total of 12,000-15,000 people in the United States every year, according to data collected by the Environmental Working Group (EWG).
The total number of annual deaths from asbestos is likely higher, but more research is needed to get more accurate numbers.