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Mesothelioma in the Coast Guard

Veterans who served in the Coast Guard between the years of 1930 and 1980 are at risk of developing mesothelioma due to extended asbestos exposure. During this time period, the military used asbestos in almost all of its vehicles, weapons systems, and infrastructure because of the mineral’s fireproofing and heat-resistant properties.

History of Asbestos Use in the Coast Guard

Asbestos was extremely common on ships, making the Navy and the Coast Guard the two branches of the military with the highest risk. On ships, asbestos could be found in locations such as boiler rooms, engine rooms and even sleeping quarters. The material was used in insulation, piping, electrical wiring, flooring and ceiling tiles, valves, gaskets and cables.

Anytime that asbestos was disturbed, fibers would be released into the air, and anyone in the general area was at risk for inhaling the fibers or inadvertently carrying it on their clothes or hair to another part of the ship. From there, someone else can inhale the asbestos, even if they were not near the initial site where the material was disturbed.

Mesothelioma can develop anywhere from 15 to 45+ years after the initial asbestos exposure. Coast Guard veterans with jobs where asbestos was constantly disturbed have the highest rates of developing mesothelioma. These include construction and demolition jobs, mechanics that installed and repaired ship components, and shipyard workers who built new parts for ships. Those that served in the Coast Guard any time from World War II until the late-1970s have a risk of developing asbestos diseases such as mesothelioma well after they served in the military.

The military used asbestos in virtually all of its infrastructure until the late-1970s, but those in the Coast Guard with the highest risk worked on ships or in shipyards. Asbestos was used to line and insulate all of the ships produced until after the Vietnam War. Because many ships had poor ventilation, asbestos fibers that had been disturbed and were airborne often circulated for hours in a small enclosed area such as a boiler room, putting anyone who entered the room at risk for asbestos exposure.

Asbestos was also used in doors, insulation, ceiling and flooring tiles. This made asbestos exposure a risk even in sleeping quarters. As the infrastructure wore down over time, it became easier to disturb the asbestos and to release fibers into the air. The military used asbestos so extensively in ships because the material was cheap and very effective at fireproofing. This protected Coast Guard members and equipment from fire while at sea.

Coast Guard Veterans at Risk

The Coast Guard veterans at the highest risk of developing mesothelioma worked in the shipyards. Shipyard workers were constantly exposed to asbestos as they built, overhauled, and tore down ships. As these Coast Guardsmen worked on ships, large amounts of asbestos would be released into the air.

The airborne fibers could remain afloat for hours, and anyone working in the area could inhale them. As the Coast Guard’s fleet of ships aged, the lining of asbestos wore down, making it easier to disturb the fibers and release them into the air. This happened in some cases when ships from World War II were reused in later engagements.

Potential Exposure Spots

Any ship built for the Coast Guard prior to the late-1970s used asbestos in some capacity. Because asbestos was cheap and highly effective at protecting ship components from heat, it was used in abundance.

It wasn’t until the late-1970s that the military recognized the dangers of asbestos exposure. Since then, the Coast Guard has removed almost all of the asbestos from its ships. Prior to the late-1970s, a sailor could be exposed to asbestos at almost any location on the ship. However, there were some locations that had higher asbestos exposure risk than others.

Ship locations with the highest risk of asbestos exposure include:

  • Boiler rooms
  • Engine rooms
  • Mess halls
  • Sleeping quarters
  • Navigation rooms

In those locations, pipes, valves, gaskets, cables, pumps, compressors, condensers, motors, flooring or ceiling tiles and insulation all potentially contained asbestos. Any time those components were installed, repaired, or removed, there was a risk of being exposed to asbestos.

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