United States Marines who served between the 1930s and early 1980s may have been exposed to asbestos. Asbestos is the only known cause of the deadly cancer mesothelioma and was widely used in Marine Corps ships, vehicles, and bases. Thankfully, Marines who develop mesothelioma as a result of their military service can access treatments and compensation from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
Marine Corps Veterans With Mesothelioma
The U.S. Marine Corps is a small, elite branch of the military that is trained to fight battles in the sea, on the ground, in the sky. Beginning in the early 1930s, the Marine Corps (and all other U.S. military branches) relied on asbestos-based products to help achieve victory.
Asbestos is a highly durable mineral made up of tiny fibers that resists heat, corrosion, and sound. Initially, the U.S. government thought that asbestos-based products, like construction materials, were safe since manufacturers hid the facts.
Asbestos could be found in:
- Barracks and other buildings
- Cars and trucks
However, asbestos is now known to cause a life-threatening cancer called mesothelioma and other deadly illnesses. Marine Corps veterans whose Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) were in construction often have the highest risk of developing mesothelioma, but any veteran exposed to asbestos is at risk.
The VA offers financial and medical benefits to veterans with mesothelioma. Legal compensation may also be available for Marines with mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease.
History of Asbestos Use in the Marines
Since asbestos use was so widespread, Marines may have been exposed in several different ways. See how the Marine Corps relied on asbestos below.
Marine barracks were often lined with asbestos insulation to fireproof them. This was typical of the military before the dangers of asbestos were known. Asbestos-containing materials like pipes and gaskets also were used to build Marine bases, barracks, and other buildings.
Asbestos products could be found in the following locations:
- Ceiling tiles
- Floor tiles
- Heating systems
- Roofing materials
As the materials wore down over time or were removed during maintenance, it was easier for asbestos exposure to occur.
Marines with the highest risk of asbestos exposure were the ones that built or repaired barracks. These Marines had to handle the materials made from asbestos, and as these products were disturbed, asbestos fibers were released into the air.
Marine veterans who served aboard U.S. Navy vessels also have a higher risk of developing mesothelioma than those who didn’t, as virtually every ship was built with asbestos between the 1930s and early 1980s.
Marines working on Navy ships could have been exposed to asbestos at every turn.
Asbestos exposure was a risk whenever someone worked on:
- Ceiling tiles
- Deck flooring
When asbestos on Navy ships was disturbed, it could remain airborne for hours and anyone aboard could easily inhale it. The risk was particularly high in boiler rooms and engine rooms, which had extremely poor ventilation.
Asbestos could also be carried to other areas of the ship on someone’s skin, hair, or clothing after initial exposure.
Throughout most of the 20th century, Marines working in shipyards were also at high risk for asbestos exposure.
Before the 1980s, ship parts like incinerators and boilers were lined with asbestos insulation to protect them from fires and excessive heat. As Marines installed, repaired, or replaced these components, asbestos fibers were released and possibly inhaled.
Actor and Marine veteran Steve McQueen believed he developed mesothelioma from removing asbestos insulation in a Navy shipyard.
The military’s largest shipyards were in California, New York, Washington, Virginia, and Oregon. Asbestos-containing products were still being used in Navy ships until the end of the 1970s and early 1980s.
Tanks and other motor transport vehicles used by the Marines contained asbestos. In the 1960s, the Marines used the M60 Patton tank, which also used asbestos insulation for fireproofing. Gunners operating the tank also wore gloves lined with asbestos to protect them from burns.
Transport vehicles, all-terrain vehicles, and amphibious assault vehicles all had similar asbestos risks. As the insulation in these vehicles wore down, the asbestos exposure risk increased.
Marines working as mechanics on aircraft or transport vehicles also had a high risk of asbestos exposure. These Marines often came in contact with seals, gaskets, brake pads, and clutches made with asbestos.
Secondary Asbestos Exposure and the Marine Corps
Marine Corps veterans are not the only ones who may be at risk of developing mesothelioma today. If their family members lived on a Marine Corps base where asbestos materials were used, they may have been exposed indirectly.
If asbestos fibers were disturbed as a Marine worked, they could get stuck on the Marines’ uniforms, hair, or skin. Family members who hugged their loved ones or handled these uniforms could have unknowingly been exposed to asbestos fibers.
Marines and Modern-Day Asbestos Risks
According to the VA, while it is very rare, some active-duty Marines may be exposed to asbestos while overseas in Iraq or nearby countries. Older buildings in this region that used asbestos in their construction can become damaged and release asbestos into the air.