Many vets tell me that they don’t think they had any exposure to asbestos in the military. However, as soon as I start describing for them all the ways in which asbestos was used in their branch of the service, they are astounded at just how prevalent asbestos use was in the military
Asbestos Use in the U.S. Military
Veterans in the US military have a higher risk of developing mesothelioma than those in the general population. In fact, one-third of all mesothelioma patients are veterans. Veterans were exposed to asbestos in a variety of different environments in the military.
From the 1930s to the late-1970s, the U.S. military used asbestos for a variety of different infrastructure projects. Mainly, the military used asbestos for its heat resistant and fireproofing properties. Asbestos-lined products allowed the military to protect ships, aircrafts, tanks, transport vehicles, barracks, and other infrastructure from the risk of fire. All of the military’s separate branches—the Navy, Marines, Army, Air Force, and Coast Guard—used asbestos products liberally.
The military didn’t stop using asbestos products until the late-1970s when all of the health dangers associated with the materials were revealed. The U.S. military did not know about the health risks of asbestos, and were misled by asbestos manufacturers.
Even though the military has undergone a major shift in order to eliminate asbestos from as much infrastructure as possible, it wasn’t able to eliminate the material completely. As a result, there are still buildings, ships and vehicles that contain asbestos materials and parts.
“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 LCDR Carl Jewett
The U.S. Navy used asbestos extensively. As a result, former Navy service members have the military’s highest risk for developing mesothelioma. The Coast Guard has a similar risk, but the branch is much smaller than other branches of the military.
The Navy used asbestos during the processes of shipbuilding, repairs and maintenance. The material was used to line engine rooms, walls, doors, deck flooring, piping, insulation and used extensively in gaskets. Asbestos was attractive to the military because it was highly effective at fireproofing and relatively inexpensive. Some of the occupations that put members of the Navy in close proximity with asbestos include:
- Boilerman/Boiler Technicians
- Welders/Hull Technicians
- Machinist Mates
When asbestos is disturbed, the fibers become airborne and can be inhaled or ingested. They can also stick to clothes or hair and then be breathed in secondhand even hours later.
Many former members of the Marines were exposed to asbestos during their time in service, and thus are at risk of developing mesothelioma. Asbestos was used in military infrastructure for its heat-resistant properties, and 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 a Navy ship. Insulation, piping, cables, gaskets, and valves on Navy ships were all insulated with asbestos or contained asbestos parts. During their time aboard Navy ships, Marines could have breathed in the hazardous material in the following places:
- Boiler rooms
- Engine rooms
- Fan rooms
- Ammunition rooms
- Bunk rooms/berthing
- Mess decks
Veterans of the U.S. Army have a relatively high risk of asbestos exposure. Unlike the other branches of the military, veterans of the Army also have a recent risk of asbestos exposure. Much of the Army’s asbestos containing infrastructure was changed out in the late-1970s, but Army veterans that served in the Iraq war may have been exposed to asbestos used for construction by Iraqi companies.
Countries in the Middle East have not yet stopped the practice of using large amounts of asbestos in the construction industry.
However, the majority of mesothelioma cases from the Army still come from veterans who served between the 1930s and 1970s. Army veterans most at risk for asbestos exposure include:
- Aircraft and vehicle mechanics
- Heating system workers
- Insulation work
Although the Air Force has gone through extensive measures to stop service members from being exposed to asbestos in recent years, that wasn’t the case from 1930 to the late-1970s. Asbestos was used to fireproof parts of aircrafts, including:
- Engine heat shields
- Electrical wiring
Asbestos could also be found in bases in floor tiles, piping, insulation, ceiling tiles, stucco, and drywall. Asbestos was often used to solve mechanical problems, endangering many mechanics that were around the material on a consistent basis