Mesothelioma in the U.S. Navy

Quick Summary

U.S. Navy veterans have the highest risk of developing mesothelioma out of all military branches. Veterans who were diagnosed with mesothelioma due to asbestos exposure while serving in the Navy can get treatment and benefits through the VA. Mesothelioma victims and their families may also be entitled to compensation through VA claims and asbestos trust funds.

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U.S. Navy Veterans With Mesothelioma

Military veterans make up the largest group of mesothelioma patients in the United States — and a majority of them served in the U.S. Navy.

The only known cause of mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos, a toxic mineral that could be found on nearly every Navy ship prior to the 1980s.

When asbestos fibers are inhaled, they can embed into the lining of the lungs or abdomen, leading to mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis, or other asbestos-related illnesses later in life.

Former sailors who were exposed to asbestos during active duty can pursue financial and health care benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Talk to our team to get help filing for VA benefits and learn whether you may be eligible for additional compensation.

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 says, we’re gonna go inside and take a look. He come 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 that I was gonna join the Navy.

I was very proud of that uniform. I was a boiler tender when I went aboard my first ship and started doing my first job. They told me — 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-that-be knew.

I didn’t wanna sue my government and I damn sure didn’t wanna sue the Navy cause they’re still feeding me. I wasn’t suing the government, I wasn’t suing the U.S. Navy, I was suing the manufacturer.

It was only 2 or 3 days and he was here [the lawyer]. He came and seen me, talked to me personally. He knew what kind of 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, there was 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

Because asbestos is cheap and extremely heat-resistant, the U.S. Navy used it for everything from fireproofing to insulation on ships and in their buildings on shore.

Asbestos was used in ship construction, repairs, and maintenance. It was also used to line engine rooms, walls, doors, deck flooring, piping, and insulation.

Did you know

The widespread use of asbestos continued from the 1930s to the late 1970s. During this time, the mineral’s severe health risks weren’t known outside of the asbestos manufacturing industry.

Manufacturers of asbestos-containing products hid the deadly truth from the military — in the name of profits — until the 1980s, when lawsuits began to surge.

Asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma generally take around 20-50 years to develop, meaning many people who were exposed to asbestos while serving in the U.S. Navy are only now getting diagnosed.

Where Was Asbestos Found on Navy Ships?

Asbestos onboard Navy ships could be found in:

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

Navy Ship Asbestos Graphic

When disturbed, asbestos fibers can become airborne for hours and stick to the clothing, hair, or skin of people nearby. Service members working on insulation, piping, or other areas parts of the ship often unknowingly released asbestos on Navy ships into the air while performing their normal duties.

To learn more about asbestos on Navy ships, get our Free Navy Ships Guide.

Navy Asbestos Exposure in Shipyards

Both Navy shipyard workers and sailors serving on ships being serviced in shipyards were at an increased risk of asbestos exposure.

Much of the work that occurred in these areas involved the removal and reinstallation of asbestos materials, releasing thousands of fibers into the air. Anyone working in or even walking through a shipyard was at risk of inhaling asbestos.

Below, see which states are home to Navy shipyards.

Map of naval shipyards per state

The U.S. Navy did not start equipping its servicemen and servicewomen with breathing protection until the late 1970s. Anyone working in a shipyard before this time would likely have had significant asbestos exposure.

U.S. Navy Rates With High Asbestos Exposure Risk

The list of U.S. Navy rates (jobs) that exposed service members to asbestos is long. Some rates, such as boiler technicians and machinist’s mates, had extremely high risks of asbestos exposure — and, in turn, mesothelioma.

U.S. Navy veterans who served between the years of 1930 and 1980 are most likely to develop mesothelioma. These veterans likely fought in World War II, Vietnam, or Korea.

“In particular, the U.S. Navy used [asbestos-containing materials] in its shipyards and ships that were built by the U.S. 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

Below, learn more about Navy rates most commonly associated with asbestos exposure.

Boiler Technicians

Boiler technicians work on the steam boilers that propel U.S. Navy ships. 20th-century boilers were made of or insulated with asbestos, and technicians often wore asbestos-laced gloves during maintenance.

Damage Controlmen

Damage controlmen repair infrastructure after an enemy attack, often making emergency repairs. Before the 1980s, these workers were put in direct contact with asbestos and also wore firefighting heat-resistant suits that were lined with asbestos.

Electrician’s Mates

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

Gunner’s Mates

Gunner’s mates wore protective asbestos gloves to reduce 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 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.

When welding, it was not uncommon for HTs to remove asbestos insulation before performing a repair.

Machinery Repairmen

Machinery repairmen were regularly exposed to asbestos since they were required to install and remove gaskets lined with the mineral. They also had to service machinery and furnaces that contained asbestos.

Machinist’s Mates and Enginemen

Machinist’s mates and enginemen are responsible for servicing the engines and other equipment that powers a ship.

These workers repaired:

  • Turbines
  • Valves
  • Pumps
  • High- and low-pressure drains
  • Heating and air conditioning systems
  • 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.

Metalsmiths

Metalsmiths are responsible for welding sheet metal into different shapes to repair damage to Navy ships. Because these workers weld metal at high temperatures, they wore protective gear lined with asbestos to prevent burns.

Pipefitters

Pipefitters were exposed to asbestos through the piping systems that they worked on. They often had to remove and reinstall asbestos insulation on the systems to perform repairs.

Seabees

Seabees perform in a construction capacity, helping build bases, pave roads, and clear land. The U.S. Navy used a variety of asbestos products in construction, including insulation, ceiling and flooring tiles, roofing shingles, and more.

Service members who worked directly with asbestos-containing products were not the only ones at risk, however. As these products were handled and released asbestos fibers into the air, the toxic particles could affect others nearby.

Secondhand Asbestos Exposure in the U.S. Navy

Service members’ families who lived on U.S. Navy bases were also likely to have been exposed to asbestos.

Did you know

Navy housing, office buildings, and construction sites could all be sources of exposure if asbestos fibers in these areas were disturbed and entered the surrounding air.

Additionally, sailors may have unknowingly exposed their loved ones to asbestos through their clothing, hair, and equipment. If a shipbuilder brought dusty, asbestos-covered clothing back to living areas, their family members could be exposed through close contact or even when the clothes were laundered.

Compensation for Navy Veterans With Mesothelioma

Financial and health care benefits from the VA, as well as asbestos settlements through legal claims, can help your family cover the medical expenses associated with mesothelioma — and provide peace of mind.

Below, learn about benefits and compensation options for Navy veterans and their families.

  • VA Health Care

    There are two world-renowned mesothelioma doctors in the VA Health Care System.

    Dr. Robert Cameron is a top thoracic surgeon in California, providing veterans who have pleural mesothelioma with the most effective treatments. Dr. Avi Lebanthal, who is based in Massachusetts, is another renowned pleural mesothelioma specialist with extensive experience treating veterans.

    Veterans with mesothelioma may be able to get free treatment from these doctors.

  • VA Benefits

    VA benefits, such as disability compensation and pensions, can help make up for lost wages and caregiver expenses.

    To get VA benefits, Navy veterans must:

    • Provide a detailed report of the asbestos exposure
    • Show that over 50% of their asbestos exposure occurred while serving in the U.S. Navy
    • Have been honorably discharged

    The VA awards a 100% disability rating for Navy veterans with mesothelioma, meaning those who are eligible can receive the highest available compensation amount. We can help you file for benefits with the VA.

  • Legal Claims

    Navy veterans with mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease can file a mesothelioma lawsuit or asbestos trust fund claim, depending on the specifics of their case.

    Lawsuits are filed against manufacturers of asbestos products, not the U.S. Armed Forces.

    There is a statute of limitations on when a mesothelioma claim can be filed, so it is crucial to contact an attorney as soon as possible for help determining which compensation routes you may be eligible for.

  • Navy Asbestos Settlements

    An asbestos settlement is the most common outcome of a mesothelioma lawsuit.

    Through a settlement, Navy veterans who developed mesothelioma from using asbestos-based products receive money from the products’ manufacturers. The lawsuit then does not proceed into the trial phase.

    Mesothelioma settlements are preferred by lawyers, in most cases, because their clients usually start to see money within 90 days. Navy veterans have often been awarded millions from these settlements.

    Recent Navy asbestos settlements have included:

    • $2.4 million to a Navy boiler tender with pleural mesothelioma
    • $1.29 million to a Navy mechanic living in Florida with mesothelioma
    • $3 million to a California Navy veteran who developed mesothelioma

    Navy veterans can work with experienced mesothelioma lawyers to file lawsuits and reach settlements. These lawyers will work on a veteran’s behalf to get the most compensation available from an asbestos settlement.

Get Help Filing a Veterans Mesothelioma Claim

Starting the VA or legal claims process can be overwhelming, but there are people who can help.

Our VA-accredited service representatives can help you file a VA claim quickly. They can also discuss your asbestos exposure history and what other options may be available to you.

Contact our support team 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: https://www.benefits.va.gov/COMPENSATION/claims-postservice-exposures-asbestos.asp. Accessed on September 23th, 2020.
  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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