Asbestos Exposure Still a Hazard in the Military

During the 1980s the government finally recognized what had been evident to the nation’s doctors and hundreds of thousands of American citizens: exposure to asbestos is a serious health hazard with long-term consequences.  Asbestos products were banned, for the most part; product liability claims and the ensuing court decisions drove more than sixty companies into bankruptcy. 

Asbestos exposure can result in the onset of many respiratory problems, the worst of which is mesothelioma cancer.  This lethal disease develops from the inhalation of asbestos fibers, which are contained in the dust or debris anytime asbestos is disturbed, moved or used.  Malignant mesothelioma will remain dormant for years or decades, the symptoms emerging in the form of chest pain and shortness of breath.  Those symptoms can affect a military veteran or anyone else twenty or more years after asbestos exposure has occurred.

No group has more asbestos victims than military veterans.  Estimates are that roughly thirty percent of all current mesothelioma patients in this country are veterans.  In a government statistical analysis the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) cited the four major job categories for asbestos exposure as mechanics, shipyard workers, construction workers and military personnel. 

Navy veterans have the highest incidence of asbestos-related disease.  Asbestos was used as insulation and as a fire retardant material in every ship commissioned prior to 1975.  Asbestos coated pipes, provided fire protection in engine rooms and insulated various areas throughout the ships.  Some of those that are still afloat are still potential asbestos hazards.  The USS Enterprise, for example, has an on-board team specially trained to handle asbestos removal any time it is found on the ship.  The Navy is still confronting asbestos disposal years after its use was banned. 

While the use of asbestos was essentially banned by the mid 1980s, military vehicles, bases and housing weren’t automatically replaced.  Anyone working in a motor pool was a candidate for asbestos exposure because brake pads and clutch plates were all manufactured with asbestos as a principal product.  In fact those that repaired all military vehicles, ships and aircraft were likely candidates for asbestos exposure years after the use of the material was discontinued.

Buildings on existing bases that are being upgraded typically involve asbestos removal as part of the job.  Base closures always have asbestos cleanup as an issue; all of the bases constructed up to 1980 or so are going to have structures with asbestos in use as insulation and fire protection material. 

Today’s Navy along with the other branches have regulations about how to handle asbestos that turns up in work sites; personnel are essentially told to back away and report the old insulation, lagging or compartments that have asbestos in them and trained crews are brought in to remove it.

Today you can find military sites that are acknowledged to have been asbestos hazards listed on a state-by-state basis.  They include every shipyard and almost every air base along with the Army’s major domestic installations.  Many of them have been cleaned up or closed, but the veterans that served there are still at risk.  You can also find lists of ships that were ported or repaired in major shipyards and Naval Bases on both coasts.

Military veterans that served at anytime up through the end of the Vietnam War were using or traveling in equipment that contained asbestos.  Much of that gear was in use following the Vietnam era for training purposes and for duty in the United States. You can learn more about asbestos and its complications  at this link; there is also a long history of the battle over asbestos liability here at Wikipedia.

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