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The following is an excerpt from an article that appears on the website of Bergman Oslund Udo Little, PLLC, and is being shared here with permission.

An estimated 40,000 veterans have died from asbestos exposure in the military, according to the Environmental Working Group, and those numbers are expected to grow as asbestos-related illnesses continue to develop over the course of 20, 30, 40, or more years after the initial exposure.

As many as 12,000 to 15,000 Americans die of asbestos-related illnesses yearly, including approximately 3,000 from mesothelioma alone. While veterans comprise just 8 percent of the U.S. population, they account for 30 percent of these deaths.

What is Asbestos Exposure?

Asbestos is a naturally-occurring group of silicate minerals with a fibrous structure. The fibers are virtually indestructible. It was highly valued in industry during most of the 1900s for the following properties:

  • Insulating capabilities
  • Fire resistance
  • Anti-corrosive properties
  • Non-conductivity
  • Chemical inertia
  • Light weight
  • Tensile strength
  • Flexibility

It could be woven into fabrics and added to a variety of compounds and building materials. It was dubbed a “miracle mineral” because it was useful in so many applications. Unfortunately, the microscopic fibers are very easily released into the environment, where they can be inhaled or ingested.

The indestructible qualities making asbestos useful are the same qualities that make it dangerous to human health. The human body cannot break down the fibers, and millions of them can remain in the tissues of the lungs, stomach, and other parts of the body, where they slowly cause inflammation and cell damage, leading to scarring and cancer.

Asbestos minerals occur in two families: serpentine and amphibole. The serpentine family consists of just one type of asbestos, known as chrysotile. This is the most commonly used type. The amphibole family consists of five different types, including amosite and crocidolite. Amphibole asbestos is considered the more dangerous type. Military personnel were exposed to both families of asbestos.

Sources of Asbestos Exposure in the Military

While the military largely discontinued the use of asbestos since the late 1970s, various locations on ships, vehicles, and living quarters still contain the material. In addition, many countries where military personnel serve still use asbestos. Avoiding significant asbestos exposure while serving in the military is virtually impossible. The top 20 sources of military asbestos exposure are discussed below.

1. Navy Ships

The most significant asbestos exposure in the military occurred on Navy ships. It was useful for fire safety, waterproofing, insulating, and helping machinery work smoothly. It was used liberally on ships in nearly every component of the following types of ships:

  • Amphibious assault ships
  • Destroyers
  • Frigates
  • Cruisers
  • Tugboats
  • Aircraft carriers
  • Submarines
  • Fuel oil barges
  • Replenishment oilers
  • Oceanographic research ships

In 1975, the U.S. Navy implemented a policy to remove and replace asbestos on ships. However, in 1979, the Comptroller General of the United States admitted that 30 to 50 percent of the asbestos materials would not be replaced, and some would only be replaced during repairs.

The personnel serving on Naval ships experienced the heaviest exposures in areas below deck, such as in the engine room, boiler room, and propulsion areas, but asbestos exposure occurred throughout the ship on the following components:

  • Boiler insulation
  • Gaskets in engine and machine parts
  • Brake pads and linings
  • Pipe insulation, especially on steam pipes
  • Thermal insulation
  • Wallboards
  • Block insulation
  • Pumps
  • Valves
  • Flanges
  • Turbines
  • Machinery casings
  • Cement
  • Lagging
  • Hull insulation
  • Vinyl asbestos tile for decking and flooring

Engine rooms and propulsion areas were typically small rooms with low ventilation, making asbestos concentrations especially high. Unlike other work environments where asbestos exposure occurs during an eight-hour workday, Navy sailors were exposed 24/7 without a break.

Of course, members of the Marines were also exposed to asbestos since they served aboard Navy ships.

2. Naval Shipyards

While asbestos was still in use, Naval shipbuilders handled the material directly when manufacturing and installing the insulation, plumbing, and machinery. However, exposure was not limited to shipbuilders. Shipyard workers responsible for repairs experienced significant exposure while repairing and replacing gaskets, plumbing fixtures, insulation, boilers, and other ship machinery.

Some repairs required the complete removal of existing asbestos-containing materials, resulting in significant exposures. With so many asbestos components on ships, asbestos was airborne throughout each shipyard. This would have impacted all workers—including office workers—who did not handle asbestos directly.

Although asbestos removal on Navy ships began in the 1970s, this process is still incomplete, according to Occupational Environmental Medicine. Naval shipyard personnel remain at risk at Naval shipyards at home and abroad. Active Naval shipyards include the following:

  • Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Virginia
  • Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard in Honolulu, Hawaii
  • Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine
  • Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Washington
  • Guam Naval Shipyard in Apra, Guam
  • Guantanamo Naval Shipyard in Guantanamo, Cuba

3. Coast Guard Vessels

The United States Coast Guard has acknowledged the presence of asbestos on its cutters—the flagship vessels of the Coast Guard. While the Coast Guard characterizes the exposure as a small amount, it is well-established that there is no safe level of asbestos, and even a small, one-time exposure can lead to disease.

The constant vibration of sea travel and the saltwater surroundings generally cause asbestos-containing materials to wear down and corrode at an accelerated rate, facilitating the release of asbestos fibers into the environment faster than when similar levels are present on land.

Additionally, during World War II, Coastguardsmen served aboard 350 Navy ships laced with asbestos throughout.

4. The World Trade Center After the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks

The Army National Guard was deployed to New York City for security and assistance in the cleanup efforts following the terrorist attack on September 1, 2011. Bloomberg News reported that the toxic plume of dust that resulted from the destruction of the World Trade Center contained 300 to 400 tons of asbestos.

According to Critical Reviews in Toxicology, this level is 10 to 1,000 times higher than in homes with damaged asbestos. This one-time exposure to asbestos is enough to put our guardsmen at risk of asbestos lung cancer and mesothelioma. A study published by the American Cancer Society in 2022 identified nine individuals who developed mesothelioma after exposure to the toxic dust cloud.

Mesothelioma is a latent illness that can occur 20 to 60 years after asbestos exposure. As a result, we are only beginning to see asbestos illnesses stemming from the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

5. Land Vehicles

Land vehicles such as jeeps and trucks, often used to navigate rugged terrain in foreign countries, contained asbestos in the following components:

  • Brake linings
  • Brake pads
  • Clutches
  • Engine gaskets
  • Industrial adhesives
  • Electrical wiring

Asbestos was especially useful in the parts of vehicles that were prone to friction and in wearable engine parts like gaskets. It was also important for insulating against heat and electricity. Wearable engine parts often required repair or replacement, which exposed military mechanics to high levels of asbestos.

If you would like to view the rest of the list and learn more about Asbestos Exposure and Veterans, please visit the full article here.