Mesothelioma in the Coast Guard

Quick Summary

Veterans who served in the Coast Guard from the 1930s to the early 1980s are at risk of developing mesothelioma. Because asbestos was used in so many aspects of Coast Guard duty, many veterans developed mesothelioma because of their time in the service. However, there are benefits and treatment specialists available just for these veterans.

Mesothelioma and Coast Guard Veterans

There are few cases of Coast Guard veterans diagnosed with mesothelioma each year. This is because of the relatively small size of this branch of the federal service.

Despite the low number of cases diagnosed, Coast Guard veterans have a high risk of developing mesothelioma. This is due to the heavy use of asbestos in Coast Guard ships. Asbestos was very effective at insulation and fireproofing materials, so it was also found in siding, building materials, and certain fire suits.

Some veterans wonder why the military would expose service members to a deadly substance like asbestos, but the Coast Guard isn’t responsible for the high rates of exposure among veterans. While every military branch used asbestos, only the asbestos companies knew of the dangers of the substance until decades later.

If your mesothelioma did come from exposure during your time in the Coast Guard, you are entitled to benefits from the VA. However, you may have also been exposed if asbestos was used at your job after the Coast Guard.

If this is the case, you can also file a legal claim. Through this claim, you may be able to get justice and compensation from major asbestos companies.

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History of Asbestos Use in the Coast Guard

The military used asbestos in almost all of its vehicles, weapons systems, and infrastructure before the dangers of asbestos became known in the early 1980s.

Asbestos was extremely common on Navy ships, and it is the only substance proven to cause mesothelioma. Since the 1980s, the Coast Guard has removed almost all of the asbestos from its ships.

According to the Office of Public Health, Coast Guard veterans most at risk were “those involved in renovation of asbestos-containing structures and/or removal of asbestos materials either before or after 1970.”

Coast Guard workers most at risk of asbestos exposure are: 

  • Construction and demolition workers: During construction or demolition, asbestos was released into the air when disturbed. This included installing or removing asbestos-containing materials. Once disturbed, asbestos could cling to a person’s hair or clothes, and continue to be inhaled. Mechanics that installed and repaired ship components fall into this category as well. Asbestos was used in the materials that construction and demolition workers would have used like piping and floor or ceiling tiles.
  • Shipyard workers who built new parts for ships: Because it was used in so many different areas of ships, many shipyard workers were exposed to asbestos. The insulation used to build ships during World War II and the Korean War was highly sought after during that time and also highly toxic.

Those who served in the Coast Guard any time from World War II until the late 1970s are at risk of developing an asbestos-related illness. This includes mesothelioma, asbestosis, lung cancer, and other types of asbestos-related cancers. The first symptoms usually appear well after the veteran served in the military.

Mesothelioma can develop anywhere from 20-50 years after initial asbestos exposure. Coast Guard veterans with jobs where asbestos was constantly used have the highest rates of mesothelioma.

Coast Guard Ships and Asbestos

Coast Guard veterans with the highest risk are those who worked on ships or in shipyards.

Asbestos was used to line and insulate all of the ships produced until after the Vietnam War. This meant that the men on these ships were unknowingly interacting with this cancer-causing material every day, and even leaving the ships with it stuck to their bodies.

Prior to the late 1970s, a sailor could be exposed to asbestos almost anywhere on the ship, but there were some locations that had a higher asbestos exposure risk than others.

On ships, asbestos could be found in locations such as:

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

Asbestos could also be found in components of the ship such as:

  • Cables
  • Ceiling tiles
  • Electrical wiring
  • Flooring tiles
  • Gaskets
  • Insulation
  • Piping
  • Valves

Any time these components were installed, repaired, or removed, there was a risk of asbestos exposure.

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 fires while at sea.

Exposure was hard to avoid because every time asbestos is disturbed, it releases microscopic fibers into the air, which anyone nearby risks inhaling. Coast Guard members could also carry it on their clothes or in their hair to another part of the ship. With asbestos attached to their clothing, others were put at risk of inhaling the asbestos.

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. This put anyone who entered the room at risk for asbestos exposure.

Asbestos was also used in insulation and ceiling and flooring tiles. This made asbestos exposure a risk even in sleeping quarters on ships. As the infrastructure wore down over time, it became easier to disturb the asbestos.

Coast Guard Personnel and Shipyards

The Coast Guard veterans with the highest risk of developing mesothelioma typically worked in the shipyards. Shipyard workers were constantly exposed to asbestos as they built, overhauled, and tore down ships. As these Coast Guard members went about their duties, large amounts of asbestos were being released into the air.

Over time, the Coast Guard’s fleet of ships aged and the lining of asbestos wore down. This made it easier for asbestos fibers to become airborne. This happened in some cases when ships from World War II were reused in later engagements.

Coast Guard and Secondhand Exposure Risks

Those who served in the Coast Guard may also have accidentally put their family members at risk of secondhand asbestos exposure.

Along with ships, the bases and vehicles used by the Coast Guard also relied heavily on asbestos materials. If a family lived on or near a Coast Guard base, they could have been exposed to asbestos fibers as this government property was repaired, built, or destroyed.

Additionally, Coast Guard personnel who saw their family regularly may have unknowingly exposed them. Asbestos fibers could easily get stuck to the uniforms or hair of Coast Guard members and could rub off onto their family members through physical contact or as the clothes were being washed.

Where Else Was Asbestos Used?

Because asbestos was so versatile and effective, it was used in more places than just ships. The military had no reason to suspect that asbestos was dangerous, so they used it throughout their assets.

The Coast Guard also used asbestos in locations like:

  • Aircraft
  • Bases
  • Buildings
  • Vehicles

Resources for Coast Guard Veterans with Mesothelioma

Coast Guard veterans who have developed mesothelioma can receive medical care and compensation through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and other sources.

These benefits and possible compensation can help recover the many costs involved with treating mesothelioma or pay for future treatment.

Learn more about the benefits available to Coast Guard veterans below.

  • Treatment from a Mesothelioma Specialist in the VA

    The VA Health Care system has two of the best mesothelioma surgeons in the world, Dr. Robert Cameron and Dr. Avi Lebenthal. Many Coast Guard veterans with mesothelioma can get free treatment from these specialists.

  • VA Financial Benefits

    Mesothelioma has a 100% disability rating according to the VA. This means that Coast Guard veterans with mesothelioma are usually eligible for the maximum payout for disability compensation. You may also qualify for other benefits based on your income, the number of dependents you have, or your need for a caregiver.

  • Asbestos Industry Trusts

    Asbestos companies made and sold asbestos products to the Coast Guard, even though they knew the deadly risks. These companies could be at fault if you developed an asbestos-related disease. To date, over $30 Billion has been set aside in trusts for those who were harmed.

Getting Access to VA Benefits

The VA offers benefits designed to relieve the financial burden of living with mesothelioma for you or your loved ones. Every Coast Guard veteran should take advantage of their VA benefits. They are the government’s way of repaying them for their dedicated service.

While there are mesothelioma specialists who work at public cancer centers, a veteran may not be entitled to the same benefits if they do not go to a VA hospital.

To get VA benefits, you must: 

  • Provide a detailed asbestos exposure summary to the VA
  • Show that over 50% of your exposure occurred in the Coast Guard
  • Be an honorably discharged veteran

The criteria above might seem like a lot of work, but there are people available to help veterans just like you. Our VA-accredited claims agents have experience creating exposure summaries and helping veterans get their VA benefits as quickly as possible.

Get connected to a service representative about your VA benefits now.

Veterans Support Team
Eic Hall wearing sunglassesReviewed 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 DryfoosWritten by:

Contributing Author

Christopher Dryfoos works hard to help veterans with mesothelioma learn how to access the care they need. Using his experiences as a journalist and Boy Scout, he strives to keep our content trustworthy, helpful, and easy to read.

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 27th, 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 27th, 2017.
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