Could You Be Exposed to Hazardous Materials During Military Service?

3 Min Read

three veterans with large backpacks

Military service members face many silent health risks in addition to the known threats of combat. Unknown to many veterans, exposure to hazardous materials may have occurred in day-to-day military work, resulting in an increased risk of severe illness.

Common Occupational Hazards in the Military

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, veterans face an increased risk of exposure to a variety of environmental dangers and occupational hazards. Much of this exposure depends on where and in which branches the veterans served.

Some of the most common hazardous materials veterans may have been exposed to include:

  • Asbestos
  • Lead
  • Radiation
  • Noise pollution
  • Chemicals

Your risk of having been exposed to these hazardous materials depends on the work you did in the military.

Asbestos

Asbestos is naturally occurring fibrous material used extensively in the manufacturing of products used by the U.S. Military. Such asbestos-containing products include insulation, pipes, boilers, and much more. When handling any of these materials, veterans may have unknowingly released toxic asbestos fibers into the air.

Inhaling or ingesting asbestos fibers can cause serious health problems, such as a type of cancer known as mesothelioma, and other less severe conditions like asbestosis and pleural plaques. Health problems caused by asbestos exposure don’t typically appear until 20 to 50 years after exposure, meaning veterans may have long since served their country when they receive a diagnosis.

Veterans may have been in contact with asbestos in several work environments, such as:

  • Working in carpentry, construction, mining, and milling
  • Shipbuilding and shipyard work
  • Handling and installing insulation
  • Demolition and maintenance of old military buildings
  • Manufacturing or installing flooring and roofing products
  • Serving in active combat in Iraq and Afghanistan

Lead

Lead is a metal traditionally used in many products, including pipes, paint, explosives, ammunition, and artillery. The U.S. Military used a range of lead-based products to construct its assets, from ships and airplanes to vehicles and barracks.

Long-term exposure to lead causes chronic health issues like:

  • Increased blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Anemia (iron deficiency)
  • Problems concentrating or remembering

High exposure may cause severe brain and kidney damage, impaired sperm production, and miscarriage.

While the health concerns associated with lead have led to a decline in its use, veterans are still at risk of exposure. Veterans may have been exposed to lead by drinking water from old pipes or coming into contact with lead-based paints. Military personnel who spent a lot of time at indoor firing ranges may also be at risk.

Radiation

Unlike safe doses of radiation that we encounter daily, ionizing radiation has enough energy to alter our cells. Some types of ionizing radiation, such as X-rays, are generated by machines. Others, like gamma rays, are emitted by radioactive materials.

Several military occupations involve exposure to ionizing radiation, including:

  • Work involving nuclear weapons or accident clean-up
  • X-ray or dental technicians
  • Serving on nuclear ships, submarines or nuclear shipyards

Fortunately, people in these occupations are trained and monitored to control their radiation exposure. Despite this, research has linked some cancers and other health issues to radiation exposure during military service.

Noise Pollution and Vibration

Military personnel often experience intense noises that can contribute to hearing loss and tinnitus. Gunfire, jets, explosives, rockets, and loud machinery are common culprits.

Veterans may also experience strong vibrations, particularly when using power hand tools or operating trucks, ships, and helicopters. This continuous vibration and sound can cause back pain, headaches, and other chronic symptoms.

Chemicals

Regular military tasks often include the use of chemicals like industrial solvents, Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs), Chemical Agent Resistant Coating (CARC) paint, and fuels.

Service members use industrial solvents for cleaning, paint stripping, oil-thinning, and degreasing. Veterans working with these chemicals risk skin and eye contact, ingestion, and inhalation — all of which can cause health problems.

PCBs are chemicals that cause skin conditions and liver damage. Although the U.S. no longer uses them in products, PCBs remain in the environment for a long time.

Veterans may have been exposed to PCBs if they:

  • Worked with PCB-containing products before 1977
  • Ate fish from contaminated water sources
  • Drank contaminated water
  • Breathed contaminated air near hazardous waste

Another chemical, CARC, is a type of paint that prevents corrosion to military vehicles. Veterans may have been exposed to CARC while painting military equipment without proper protection.

Fuels — petroleum, lubricants, and oils — are used in various military vehicles. Diesel and JP-8 jet fuel are the most common. People who frequently work with these fuels may develop long-term health problems in the lungs and heart.

Financial Compensation for American Heroes

Veterans face a number of threats to their health that often go unnoticed until they develop a health condition. Exposure to hazardous materials, especially asbestos, may not be evident until many years later.

If you are a veteran who has received a mesothelioma diagnosis, contact the Mesothelioma Veterans Center today at (877) 450-8973. A VA-Accredited Claims agent will help you file your claim so that you can begin receiving VA benefits to cover your treatment costs.

Veterans Support Team
Christopher Dryfoos PhotoWritten by:

Contributing Author

Christopher Dryfoos is a journalist and member of the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA). As the grandson of the U.S. Navy’s first forensic pathologist, he aims to help veterans with mesothelioma access needed care.

View Sources

“Occupational Hazards” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Retrieved from https://www.publichealth.va.gov/exposures/categories/occupational-hazards.asp. Accessed on March 5, 2019.