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Mesothelioma in the Navy

Veterans of the U.S. Navy have the highest risk of asbestos exposure. The Navy used asbestos extensively in their ships, and the material could be found in boiler rooms, engine rooms, pipe lagging, valves, pumps, gaskets, seals, deck flooring, bulkheads, insulation, and even in berthing. Asbestos was relatively cheap and heat-resistant, so it was used extensively to fireproof the Navy’s ships, submarines and infrastructure.

History of Asbestos Use in the Navy

Veterans of the U.S. Navy have the highest risk of asbestos exposure because of the heavy use of asbestos for fire protection and insulation in its seagoing vessels, shipyards and buildings. Asbestos was relatively cheap and heat-resistant, so it was used extensively to fireproof the Navy’s infrastructure.

Although all of the other branches of the military—the Army, Coast Guard, Marines, and Air Force—used asbestos, they did not use them to the extent of the Navy. This is why so many veterans who get help filing for VA Benefits with us are former Navy serviceman. Veterans of the Coast Guard have similar risks to members of the Navy, but the branch is the military’s smallest and thus it has the fewest cases of mesothelioma each year.

Because asbestos was used so often in ship infrastructure, sailors working on insulation, piping, or other parts of the ship often unknowingly released asbestos into the air while working.

When disturbed, asbestos can become airborne and stay that way for hours. The fibers can stick to clothing, hair or skin of people nearby, leading to the spread of asbestos beyond the initial site of exposure. Once asbestos fibers are inhaled, they may become lodged in the lungs, potentially leading to mesothelioma, lung cancer, or asbestosis later in life.

While the VA will usually concede service related asbestos exposure for many Navy ratings such as Boilerman and Machinist Mates, they don’t simply concede exposure for those of us who served on Navy ships, but in jobs not traditionally thought of as involving asbestos work. And even for those who they concede were exposed, the decision as to whether their mesothelioma is service related still rests in convincing the VA that you had more exposure in the Navy, than in your civilian career.  That is why, for any veteran with mesothelioma, we assist those veterans in writing a detailed exposure summary to support their VA claim.

Navy Jobs With High Asbestos Exposure Risk

Navy veterans who served between the years of 1930 and 1980 have the highest risk of developing mesothelioma. These veterans might have fought in World War II or the Vietnam or Korean Wars. The list of Navy jobs that exposed veterans to asbestos is long. Some of the jobs that put Navy veterans at the highest risk of asbestos exposure during their service were:

  • Boiler Technician – 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.
  • Damage Controlman – 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.
  • Electrician’s Mate – Electricians on Navy ships were often exposed to asbestos because the material was used as the insulation for electrical wiring as well as insulation for Turbine Generators, Motor Generator, Motor Controllers, and switchboards.
  • Gunner’s Mate – Gunner’s mates wore protective asbestos gloves which reduced their risk of burns while operating machine guns, anti-aircraft artillery, and other weapons systems. 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.
  • Hull Maintenance Technician – Hull maintenance technicians are responsible for installing and repairing metal infrastructure such as valves, sanitation, and plumbing systems around the ship. They often worked around insulation and pipe gaskets, which exposed them to asbestos. HTs are also usually the Navy’s welders, often removing asbestos insulation before performing a welding repair.
  • Machinery Repairman – Machinery repairmen were often heavily exposed to asbestos as they were required to install and remove gaskets that were lined with asbestos. They also had to service machinery and furnaces, which also could have exposed them to the hazardous material.
  • Machinist’s Mate/Engineman – Machinist’s mates and Enginemen are responsible for servicing the engines and other equipment that is used to power a ship. They repair turbines, valves, pumps, main and aux steam systems, hi and low pressure drains, heating & air conditioning systems, and components of the main engines or diesel engines/generators.  They may also repair ships drain systems, hydraulics, and air compressors.  Working in engine rooms for long periods of time exposed these workers to asbestos from piping, insulation, adhesives, and gaskets.
  • Metalsmith – 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.
  • Pipefitter – Navy pipefitters were exposed to asbestos through the piping that they worked on regularly. Pipefitters would often have to remove and reinstall asbestos insulation on the systems for which they were performing repairs.
  • Seabee – Seabees performed in a construction capacity, helping to 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.

Shipyards

Navy personnel stationed in a shipyard, along with those sailors serving aboard ships undergoing overhaul, were at an increased risk of asbestos exposure because of the very industrial nature of shipyard work.  Much of the work that occurred in shipyards involved the removal and reinstallation of asbestos materials, which released a great deal of asbestos dust fibers into the air.

Anyone working or even transiting through that space would have been breathing the airborne asbestos fibers.  Because the Navy did not start protecting its sailors with breathing protection until the late 1970s, anyone working in a shipyard, regardless of rating, would have had a significant exposure to asbestos and should consider legal help for expenses.

 

Sources & Author Edited: August 29, 2015

About the Writer

Senior Veteran Support Team

The Mesothelioma Veterans Center was created to provide information and assistance to veterans regarding treatment, clinical trials, and VA benefits for veterans suffering from asbestos illnesses. The MVC was founded by retired veterans and veterans advocates who have helped hundreds of veterans get approved for their VA benefits after developing mesothelioma or asbestos-related lung cancer from their asbestos exposure in the military.

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