Military Asbestos Exposure

Quick Summary

Anyone who has served in the U.S. Armed Forces may have been exposed to asbestos. In fact, many victims don’t even know they were exposed because the fibers can be inhaled through secondhand exposure. Today, thousands of veterans who were exposed to asbestos while in the service of their country are developing mesothelioma.

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Asbestos Use in the U.S. Military

Veterans in the U.S. military have a higher risk of developing mesothelioma, a deadly cancer, than those in the general population.

In fact, over 30% of all mesothelioma patients are veterans. Veterans were exposed to asbestos in a variety of different environments while serving in the military.

From the 1930s to the early 1980s, the U.S. military used asbestos for a variety of different infrastructure projects. Mainly, the military used asbestos for its heat resistant and insulating properties.

Asbestos-lined products allowed the military to protect ships, aircraft, tanks, transport vehicles, barracks, and other infrastructure from the risk of fire. All branches of the Armed Forces — the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Coast Guard — used asbestos products liberally.

The following military occupations had a high risk of asbestos exposure, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA):

Most veterans with mesothelioma are eligible for VA benefits.

The VA says, “The evidence must show you have a disease or disability related to asbestos and a relationship exists between the exposure to asbestos in military service and the disease/disability.”

This evidence is strong for most veterans with mesothelioma.

The military didn’t stop using asbestos products until the early 1980s. This is when the health dangers associated with the materials were revealed.

The U.S. military did not know about the health risks of asbestos and was misled by manufacturers of asbestos-containing products.

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Asbestos in the Army

Veterans of the U.S. Army have a relatively high risk of asbestos exposure. Tragically, veterans of the Army also may have been exposed to asbestos much more recently than other branches of the service.

Much of the Army’s asbestos-containing infrastructure had been replaced in the early 1980s, but Army veterans that served in the Iraq war may have been exposed to asbestos, as Iraqi companies used this deadly substance in local construction projects.

Countries in the Middle East have not yet stopped using large amounts of asbestos in the construction industry.

Even though it may be possible for recent veterans to have been exposed to asbestos, the vast majority of mesothelioma cases related to service in the Army are from veterans who served between the 1930s and 1980s.

Asbestos in the Navy

Asbestos was most extensively used by the U.S. Navy. As a result, former Navy service members have the military’s highest risk for developing mesothelioma.

The Navy used asbestos throughout its processes of shipbuilding, repairs, and maintenance. The material was used to line engine rooms, walls, doors, deck flooring, piping, insulation, and in every gasket.

Asbestos was used in not only boiler rooms and engine rooms but was also spread throughout ships and on land in the barracks.

Asbestos was also used in many products such as:

  • Deck flooring
  • Gaskets
  • Insulation
  • Pipe lagging
  • Pumps
  • Valves and seals

Asbestos in Navy Shipyards

Navy service members also came into contact with asbestos in shipyards. In these shipyards, Navy personnel would build new ships and renovate existing ships, all of which relied on asbestos-containing parts. Get a breakdown of Navy shipyards by state below.

Map of naval shipyards per state

Asbestos in the Marine Corps

Many former members of the U.S. Marine Corps were exposed to asbestos during their time in service. They are also at risk of developing mesothelioma. Former marines could potentially have been exposed on land or at sea.

Marines often supported the Navy and could have been exposed to the dangers of asbestos during their time on ships.

During their time aboard Navy ships, marines could have breathed in the hazardous material in the following places:

  • Ammunition rooms
  • Boiler rooms
  • Bunk rooms
  • Berthing
  • Engine rooms
  • Fan rooms
  • Galleys
  • Mess decks

Asbestos in the Air Force

The U.S. Air Force has gone through exhaustive measures to safeguard today’s service members from being exposed to asbestos. Most Air Force veterans with mesothelioma were exposed between the late-1940s and 1970s.

Asbestos was used to fireproof parts of aircraft, including:

  • Brakes
  • Electrical wiring
  • Engine heat shields
  • Gaskets
  • Insulation
  • Valves

Like all military installations throughout the Armed Services, asbestos could also be found on U.S. Air Force bases. The buildings at these bases had asbestos in floor tiles, piping, insulation, ceiling tiles, stucco, and drywall.

Asbestos in the Coast Guard

Asbestos use on U.S. Coast Guard ships was common prior to the 1980s. Coast Guard veterans have a high risk of developing mesothelioma due to the heavy use of asbestos on Coast Guard ships.

Asbestos was used in common locations including:

  • Electrical wiring
  • Flooring tiles
  • Ceiling tiles
  • Insulation
  • Piping
  • Sleeping quarters

Military Jobs with Asbestos Exposure Risk

Asbestos was attractive to the military because it was highly effective at fireproofing, and it was relatively inexpensive. Asbestos was also used to solve mechanical problems.

Due to its common use, many military workers were exposed to the deadly material on a consistent basis.

In addition to asbestos exposure occurring on the job, when the fibers are disturbed, they can become airborne for hours. Fibers can stick to the clothing, hair, or skin of people nearby.

Asbestos can be inhaled, ingested, and even breathed in secondhand hours later. This means military workers in a vast number of jobs were put at risk.

Some jobs with the highest risk include:

  • Aircraft and vehicle mechanics
  • Boiler operators
  • Carpenters
  • Construction workers
  • Demolition specialists
  • Enginemen
  • Floor and roof installers
  • Heating system workers
  • Hull technicians
  • Insulation workers
  • Machinist mates
  • Plumbers
  • Seabees
  • Shipfitters/Pipefitters
  • Shipyard workers
  • Welders

Asbestos Removal by the Military

Eventually, the military became aware of how deadly asbestos exposure could be. It was at this time in the early 1980s that the military began removing asbestos from installations. This was a major project since asbestos had been used for about half a century.

It took time to remove asbestos from all the spaces where military personnel lived and worked. As late as the mid-1990s, many Navy personnel working in shipyards or below deck were still at risk for asbestos exposure.

In fact, many buildings and ships built before the 1980s still contain asbestos. Thankfully, the risk of asbestos exposure is low if the material is left undisturbed.

“During my twilight tour in the Navy as the Executive Officer at a shore duty installation, our building underwent a major overhaul. However, before work could begin, the contractor had to have much of the building tested for asbestos. I was floored when I received the report that showed that our building had asbestos in the floor tiles, drywall, joint compounds, heating system, and even in the window caulk. Work on any of these materials required the contractors to wear respirators, special clothing, and cordon off the entire space in plastic with special ventilation. And this was as recent as 2008. So, if you don’t think you came in contact with asbestos while serving in the military, think again.”

– Retired Senior Veteran

Benefits for Veterans with Mesothelioma

The risk of asbestos exposure is higher for veterans than the average civilian. That is why benefits from the VA cover veterans diagnosed with asbestos-related illnesses like mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma has a 100% disability rating in the VA. This means that mesothelioma patients get the maximum payout for VA disability benefits.

VA disability benefits provide money to veterans who were injured or became ill while serving in the military. Disability payments are tax-free and are paid monthly.

VA health care may be available to you if you were diagnosed with mesothelioma. You may be able to use the VA Health Care System to get affordable health care. Through this health care system, veterans can receive quality care through VA-affiliated mesothelioma specialists.

Mesothelioma victims who served in the military may also qualify for other benefits, such as VA Pension.

Veterans pension benefits are tax-free monthly payments made to low-income wartime veterans. The benefit helps veterans manage financial challenges by offering supplemental income.

The pension may be granted to veterans or to the survivors of deceased veterans.

Here are some other ways VA benefits could help you:

  • Pay for bills while you’re out of work
  • Get free mesothelioma treatment, including surgery
  • Cover travel costs to see specialists

Accessing Veterans Benefits

The first step to getting your VA benefits is filing your claim. This is a complex process that involves providing medical documents and a detailed asbestos exposure history.

The key to getting benefits is proving that your disease is related to asbestos exposure in the military. Our VA-accredited claims agents have years of experience helping veterans build their claims and get the most out of their benefits.

Get your VA claim started today.

Veterans Support Team
Eric P.W. Hall (Capt RIANG) PhotoReviewed by:Eric P.W. Hall (Capt RIANG)

VA-Accredited Attorney

  • Fact-Checked
  • Editor

Eric P.W. Hall (Capt RIANG) is an attorney, a former Sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps, and a legal advisor at the Mesothelioma Veterans Center. Today, Eric continues to serve as a Captain in the Rhode Island Air National Guard where he is Deputy Staff Judge Advocate, upholding his dedication to his country and fellow veterans. Eric considers it his duty to help his veteran family and strives to help them navigate the VA and receive the benefits they so bravely earned.

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 3 Sources
  1. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “Compensation - Asbestos Exposure.” Retrieved from: https://www.benefits.va.gov/COMPENSATION/claims-postservice-exposures-asbestos.asp. Accessed on September 28th, 2017.
  2. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. M21-1, Part IV, Subpart ii, Chapter 1, Section 1. “Developing Claims for Service Connection (SC) Based on Other Exposure Types.”
  3. War Related Illness and Injury Study Center. Office of Public Health. Department of Veterans Affairs. “Exposure to Asbestos: A Resource for Veterans, Service Members and Their Families.” Retrieved from: https://www.warrelatedillness.va.gov/education/factsheets/asbestos-exposure.pdf. Accessed on September 28th, 2017.
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