Guest Post by Faith Franz
For many veterans, an initial four- , five- or six-year enlistment was just the beginning of a decades-long
military career. As they worked through the ranks of their selected branch, they accumulated more than experience: they were also accumulated asbestos fibers in their bodies.
Asbestos is a mineral fiber that was used heavily by all branches of the military for industrial purposes. The Navy was the most notorious consumer of asbestos, but the Army, Air Force, Coast Guard and Marine Corps all utilized asbestos products in a number of different ways. When asbestos materials were disturbed during training drills, combat or even simple base renovations, service men and women were exposed to the fibers.
If asbestos is inhaled, the fibers can cause inflammation, scarring and even biological changes in the body. Mesothelioma – one of the most common asbestos-related diseases – is diagnosed fairly frequently in veterans. Even though only 3,000 new cases of the cancer are recorded in the United States each year, around 30 percent of all patients are veterans.
Military Exposure to Asbestos
Each job within the military carried a significant risk of asbestos exposure. Nearly every military property, including barracks, proving grounds, battleships, aircraft and submarines, contained asbestos products.
Some of the products that released asbestos fibers into the air where veterans lived and worked include:
- Engine room insulation
- Ship piping
- Torpedo wrapping
- Flooring and roofing tiles
- Gaskets and brakes on tanks and in vehicle repair shops
The frequency and duration of a veteran’s asbestos exposure places them at a higher risk for asbestos-related diseases than a civilian who was exposed once or twice during their lifetime. Prolonged exposure at high levels – such as in several months at sea in a poorly ventilated frigate – is associated with a higher asbestos count in the body.
However, even short periods of asbestos exposure can increase a person’s risk for developing illnesses such as asbestosis and pleural plaques. In recent years, several military bases have come under fire for short but severe asbestos exposure risks, such as a 2008 incident in which 10 soldiers were ordered to scrape up asbestos floor tiles without the proper training or protective gear.
Asbestos-Related Health Risks Veterans Face
Regardless of the extent of a veteran’s asbestos exposure, a number of asbestos-related diseases may develop after inhaling or ingesting the fibers during military service.
The primary asbestos-related conditions include:
- Lung cancer
- Pleural plaques/pleural thickening
Several other minor conditions, such as interstitial lung disease, are also associated with asbestos exposure. Additionally, some cancers like gastrointestinal cancer and esophageal cancer have been linked to asbestos exposure.
These cancers can take decades to develop. Veterans with asbestos-related diseases are often diagnosed years after they have retired or have been discharged from the service. Because of this, veterans should be mindful of their elevated risk and register for regular health screenings. VA hospitals typically offer these procedures.
If diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease, veterans may be eligible for benefits to cover their medical expenses.
About the Author:
Faith Franz is a writer for the Mesothelioma Center. She combines her interests in whole-body health and medical research to educate the mesothelioma community about the newest developments in cancer care.