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Mesothelioma in the Navy

Quick Summary

Navy veterans have the highest risk of developing mesothelioma out of all U.S. military branches. Navy veterans diagnosed with mesothelioma after being exposed to asbestos while in the Navy can get treatment and benefits through the VA and may be able to get legal compensation.

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Navy Veterans With Mesothelioma

Military veterans make up the largest group of mesothelioma patients in the U.S., and a majority of these patients are Navy Veterans. The Navy used asbestos extensively in their ships for insulation and fireproofing.

Former Sailors may be able to get legal and financial help due to their exposure to asbestos while in the Navy.

The fault of asbestos exposure among veterans lies with asbestos companies. These companies knew the risks of asbestos exposure for decades but hid this truth from the public and the military so they could continue to profit off of its manufacture and sale.

Because of this corporate malfeasance, Navy veterans may be able to receive financial compensation through a legal claim. This compensation can be used to help veterans afford the high costs of treatment and provide financial security for their families.

Video Summary: Walter, a victim of mesothelioma, shares the story of his journey in the Navy, diagnosis with mesothelioma, and filing of an asbestos claim. View Transcript.

The word mesothelioma I didn’t know anything about. When I turned 70 I started getting pneumonia, but then as time went on they kept getting closer and closer and closer together [the occurrences] and I asked the doctor, I said, I wanna know why.

And they sent me downstairs to get a chest x-ray and the x-ray made it back before I got back up there.

He said, we are gonna go inside and take a look. He came up right to my bedside after the operation and showed me the pictures they took on the inside of the lung and he pointed out the cancer.

I really can’t explain it, I got a knot in my stomach you know. But, he told me then that there was no cure for it.

I was impressed – by the Navy – seeing my uncle in that Navy uniform you know – take pictures of him. So I just decided when I come outta school I was gonna join the Navy. I was very proud of that uniform, I was a bartender when I went aboard my first ship and started doing my first job. I asked them what the material was made out of and they told me it was asbestos. It didn’t kill anybody on the spot that’s for sure but it took years later when it started catching up with us. But, my understanding is that the powers-at-be knew.

I didn’t wanna sue my government and I damn sure didn’t wanna sue the Navy cause their still feeding me. I wasn’t suing the government, I wasn’t suing the US Navy, I was suing the manufacture.

I was only 2 or 3 days and he was here [the lawyer]. He came and seen me, talk to me personally. He knew what kinda a man I was and how involved I was with my job in the Navy. Felt very comfortable with them. I was watching the way they handled it, they did good. It was positive thinking, nothing negative about it, it was positive. They were prepared, they could go back to day 1, and I appreciated that. There was no guessing about it, they had the paperwork to back them up. It was a hands on approach I guess, and that’s what drew me. Cause that’s the way I do things – a hands on approach. They damn well earned it.

History of Asbestos Use in the Navy

Before the 1970s, the dangers of asbestos weren’t known outside the asbestos manufacturing industry.

Asbestos was relatively cheap and very heat-resistant, so it was widely used by the military. The Navy used asbestos for everything from fire protection to insulation on ships and in their buildings on shore.

Did you know

Navy service members have the highest risk of asbestos exposure because it was so widely used, particularly on their ships. 

Although all of the other branches of the military used asbestos, they did not use them to the extent that the Navy did. This is why so many veterans who get help filing for VA benefits are former Navy Sailors.

Veterans of the U.S. Coast Guard have similar risks to members of the Navy. However, the branch is the military’s smallest and, therefore, has the fewest number of veterans diagnosed with mesothelioma each year.

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Asbestos Products on Navy Ships

Asbestos in Navy ships was virtually everywhere. Sailors working on insulation, piping, or other parts of the ship often released asbestos into the air unknowingly while going about their normal duties.

Asbestos onboard ships could be found in:

  • Berthing
  • Boiler rooms
  • Bulkheads
  • Deck flooring
  • Engine rooms
  • Gaskets
  • Insulation
  • Pipe lagging
  • Pumps
  • Seals
  • Valves

When disturbed, asbestos can become airborne for hours. The fibers stick to the clothing, hair or skin of people nearby. Sailors spread asbestos to other parts of ships and barracks, unknowingly contaminating their seamates.

Once asbestos fibers are inhaled, they may become lodged in the lungs. This can lead to mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis, and other asbestos cancers later in life.

Some Navy rates, such as boiler technicians and machinist mates, have extremely high rates of asbestos exposure. They also have high rates of mesothelioma among workers.

The VA usually admits that the cause of mesothelioma is a patient’s time in the Navy. This makes it easier for these veterans to get VA benefits. However, Navy veterans must provide documentation to prove that their mesothelioma is service-related.

Navy Rates With High Asbestos Exposure Risk

The list of Navy rates, or jobs, that exposed service members to asbestos is long. Navy veterans who served between the years of 1930 and 1980 have the highest risk of developing mesothelioma. These veterans likely fought in World War II, Vietnam or Korea.

In particular, the Navy used [asbestos-containing materials] in its shipyards and ships that were built by the Navy before the mid-70s. The ships often contained multiple asbestos-containing materials in the engine and boiler rooms and other areas below deck for fire safety purposes.

— Office of Public Health, 2013

Navy veterans who worked any of the jobs below are at the highest risk of developing mesothelioma.

Navy Boiler Technicians

Boiler technicians work on the steam boilers that propel Navy ships. Most of the boiler was either made of or insulated with asbestos. Often, these technicians wore gloves laced with asbestos in addition to using asbestos gaskets during maintenance.

Navy Damage Controlmen

The damage controlman repaired infrastructure after an enemy attack, often making emergency repairs. This put them in direct contact with asbestos. Many wore firefighting heat-resistant suits lined with asbestos.

Navy Electrician’s Mates

Electricians on Navy ships were often exposed to asbestos because the material was used as the insulation for electrical wiring. Asbestos was used for insulation in turbine generators, motor generators, motor controllers and switchboards.

Navy Gunner’s Mates

Gunner’s mates wore protective asbestos gloves. The gloves reduced their risk of burns while operating machine guns, anti-aircraft artillery, and other weapons systems, but as the gloves wore down, they released asbestos into the air.

Ammunition storage rooms were also lined with asbestos insulation to prevent sparks in the same space as the ammunition.

Navy Hull Maintenance Technicians

Hull maintenance technicians (HTs) are responsible for installing and repairing metal infrastructures such as valves, sanitation and plumbing systems around the ship. They often worked around asbestos-containing insulation and pipe gaskets.

HTs are also usually the Navy’s welders, often removing asbestos insulation before performing a welding repair.

Navy Machinery Repairmen

Machinery repairmen were often heavily exposed to asbestos. They were required to install and remove gaskets lined with asbestos. They also had to service machinery and furnaces that contained asbestos.

Navy Machinist’s Mates and Enginemen

Machinist’s mates and Enginemen are responsible for servicing the engines and other equipment that powers a ship. They repair turbines, valves, pumps, steam systems, high and low-pressure drains, and heating and air conditioning systems.

They also repair components of the main engines or diesel engines/generators. Working in engine rooms for long periods of time exposed these workers to asbestos from piping, insulation, adhesives, and gaskets.

Navy Metalsmiths

These workers were responsible for welding sheet metal into different shapes to repair damage to the ship. Metalsmiths had to weld metal at high temperatures, and they often wore protective gear lined with asbestos to prevent burns.

Navy Pipefitters

Navy pipefitters were exposed to asbestos through the piping that they worked on. Pipefitters would often have to remove and reinstall asbestos insulation on the systems to perform repairs.

Navy Seabees

Seabees performed in a construction capacity. They helped build bases, pave roads and clear land. The Navy used a variety of asbestos products in construction, including insulation and heat resistant gloves used for protection by welders.

These are not the only jobs that increased veterans’ risk of developing mesothelioma from asbestos exposure. Because asbestos becomes airborne, it can affect other workers on ships or even people nearby.

Asbestos Exposure in Shipyards

Navy shipyard workers had an increased risk of asbestos exposure due to the industrial nature of the rank. Sailors serving aboard ships undergoing overhaul were also at an increased risk of asbestos exposure.

Much of the work that occurred in shipyards involved the removal and reinstallation of asbestos materials. This released a large number of asbestos fibers into the air. Anyone working in or even walking through the space would have been breathing in asbestos fibers.

The Navy did not start equipping its sailors with breathing protection until the late 1970s. Anyone working in a shipyard before this time — regardless of their rate — would have had significant exposure to asbestos.

Secondhand Asbestos Exposure in the Navy

Navy service personnel were not the only ones at risk of asbestos exposure. If their family lived on a Navy base that relied heavily on asbestos, their loved ones could be at risk too.

Because Navy ships and bases used so much asbestos materials, it was easy for asbestos fibers to enter the nearby air when disturbed. Family members could be put at risk if they regularly came in contact with these fibers (such as walking near a construction site).

Additionally, Navy workers may have unknowingly exposed their loved ones to asbestos through their clothing and equipment.

For example, a shipyard worker could bring dusty, asbestos-covered clothing back to their living areas. In turn, their family could have been exposed if they hugged their loved one or touched the asbestos dust.

Compensation for Navy Veterans

There are many resources available to Navy veterans.

VA benefits and legal claims can help Navy veterans cover the medical expenses associated with mesothelioma. However, veterans may not get these benefits from a non-VA hospital or treatment center, so it is beneficial to explore all options.

Learn more about benefits available to Navy veterans below.

  • Specialist Treatment in the VA

    There are two world-renowned mesothelioma specialists in the VA Health Care system. Most Navy veterans with mesothelioma can get free treatment from these doctors.

  • VA Benefits

    VA benefits, such as Disability Compensation and VA Pension, can help make up for lost wages and caregiver expenses. Keep in mind that VA benefits require you to prove your asbestos exposure happened in the Navy. If you were honorably discharged, you likely qualify for VA benefits.

  • Legal Claims

    There are statutes of limitations on when you can file a claim, usually ranging from 1-2 years after diagnosis. It is crucial to hire an attorney as soon as possible to discuss what options you have in regard to filing a claim. If you had occupational asbestos exposure, you can file a legal claim.

Getting Compensation and Benefits

From VA benefits to legal claims, mesothelioma compensation can give you and your family peace of mind. Starting the process of getting compensation can be overwhelming, but there are people who can help.

Our VA-accredited Claims Agents can help you file a VA claim quickly. They can also discuss your asbestos exposure history and what other options are available to you.

Talk to a representative now.

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: 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: Accessed on September 27th, 2017.
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