January 26, 2009 – The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs stated that out of the millions of veterans who have served the country, hundreds of thousands have been exposed to asbestos during their service. Regarded as one of many coverups jointly executed by corporations and government, it appears that the asbestos scandal still has not reached its climax.
Widely used by every military branch in the United States, over 300 products containing asbestos were used by the Navy and other military sectors from the 1930s through the 1970s. This has led to asbestos exposure among hundreds of thousands of military personnel.
Although not everyone who is exposed to asbestos will develop an asbestos-related illness, long-term exposure does increase the possibility. Asbestos exposure can cause severe ailments such as asbestosis and malignant mesothelioma, a highly aggressive cancer caused almost exclusively by asbestos exposure. Approximately 2,000 to 3,000 new mesothelioma cases are reported every year in the United States alone.
Due to an intense latency period associated with mesothelioma, many soldiers will not experience related symptoms until 20 to 50 years after exposure, when the disease has already progressed to its later stages. Many symptoms of mesothelioma are ones found with other less serious conditions, making early diagnosis a significant challenge for physicians.
Around the turn of the 20th century, asbestos business grew into a major corporate industry with large profits and thousands of employees. By 1922, the Navy issued a medical checklist that placed asbestos in a list of hazardous occupations and recommended the use of respirators.
The U.S. Navy was not ignorant of the dangers of asbestos and evidence shows the hazardous qualities of asbestos was swiftly covered up by asbestos manufacturers. Any asbestos concerns were silenced in the race to build the U.S. Navy fleet prior to World War II.
Working in shipyards during WWII became almost as dangerous as fighting in the war itself. As many as four million service men and women worked in shipyards repairing and building giant vessels. Thousands of tons of asbestos were used as piping and boiler insulation aboard navigation rooms, sleeping quarters and mess halls in ships.
The Navy issued a ban on asbestos-contaminated materials on new ships in 1973, but then violated its own ban for the next five years.
In 1983, the Navy Asbestos Control Program was created to help facilitate compliance with asbestos-related regulations set by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Despite these actions, many veterans continued to be exposed to high levels of asbestos even after the Navy began to replace contaminated ships.
The majority of veteran asbestos exposure continues to occur when veterans work on naval vessels where asbestos-contaminated products were heavily used. Many of these older ships are decommissioned and sent for overhaul to third world countries that have limited regulations or little knowledge of the dangers of asbestos.
This phase of exposure began in the 1990s when the U.S. Navy began to sell obsolete ships for scrap materials where workers have no prior knowledge of the dangers involved in handling asbestos. Usually these workers are not given any protective equipment to prevent potential exposure.
Since March 2003, United States combat troops have been stationed in Iraq where they face many dangers while performing military operations. Many are unaware of the potential threat of asbestos exposure. Documents from 2003 reveal that over $194,000 worth of asbestos was imported into Iraq. This presents a significant hazard for all soldiers stationed in the country because intense winds and desert sands can carry asbestos dust for long distances.
Veterans with asbestos-related disease unfortunately find themselves in a tough situation because they experience difficulty in obtaining assistance and benefits for their illness. Currently, mesothelioma is not readily recognized as a service-related medical ailment. However, veterans can apply for Veteran Affairs (VA) benefits for asbestos-related illness and must provide proof that their exposure occurred at the time of their military service.
Some naval vessels and public facilities may still contain asbestos-laden materials, such as clutches, brakes, gaskets or older construction materials. Thus, the potential remains for yet another generation of veterans and civilians to be exposed to asbestos on a global scale.
For more information on veteran asbestos exposure and mesothelioma, please visit the Mesothelioma Cancer Center.