Asbestos Exposure in the Coast Guard

The U.S. Armed Forces used asbestos for most of the 20th century. Members of the Coast Guard were mainly exposed to asbestos in their naval vessels, which were built with asbestos-containing materials. As many as 1,800 veterans succumb to asbestos-related illnesses annually. These include asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma.

Members of the Coast Guard who have been diagnosed with asbestos-related illnesses are entitled to receive VA benefits and may have legal options to recover additional compensation. The experienced mesothelioma attorneys at The Lanier Law Firm can help Coast Guard veterans explore their options.

Sources of U.S. Coast Guard Asbestos Exposure

The U.S. Armed Forces began purchasing asbestos and asbestos-containing products during the 1930s. Coast Guard cutters prior to 1991 are known to contain asbestos. Asbestos use reached its peak during World War II, during which the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) served vital roles both at home and abroad.

The waterproofing and insulating qualities of asbestos made it ideal for multiple applications in shipbuilding and maintenance, resulting in its use for the following applications:

While shipbuilders and shipyard maintenance crews were exposed to asbestos throughout their workday, those serving aboard ships were exposed 24/7.

Asbestos Exposure at Sea and Abroad

During World War II, the USCG manned more than 350 naval ships, more than 800 cutters and nearly 300 ships for the Army. All branches of the military utilized asbestos in their shipbuilding and maintenance processes, with the highest incidence of asbestos-containing materials in naval vessels.

USCG Boat

Asbestos Exposure at Home

The USCG built and repaired ships at the Coast Guard Shipyard at Curtis Bay in Baltimore, Maryland. Established in 1899, it grew from a 36-acre lease by the Revenue Cutter Service to the USCG’s only shipyard. It spans 113 acres today and is known by Coastguardsmen as simply “the yard.”

By World War II, the shipyard had developed fully functional boat, gas engine and machine shops, in addition to a 40-ton marine engine railway and buoys. Substantial amounts of asbestos were used in the construction of ships from 1940 to 1975. During the war period, the Coast Guard built two of the largest-ever cutters: the MENDOTA and the PONTCHARTRAIN.

Civilians Exposed in Coast Guard Shipyards

Civilian employees play a significant role in the USCG’s operations. During World War II, the Coast Guard employed 3,100 civilian workers in the Curtis Bay shipyard. The USCG has continued to employ civilian workers. A study of more than 4,702 civilian workers employed from 1950 through 1964 revealed an increased mortality rate from lung cancer, mesothelioma and other asbestos-related illnesses.

Are Coast Guard personnel still at risk of asbestos exposure?

Asbestos use on Coast Guard vessels ceased after 1990. However, cutters built prior to 1991 have remained in service despite being known to have asbestos-containing materials aboard, including thermal insulating material and floor tiles. Personnel serving aboard these cutters as well as those providing maintenance to them could be exposed.
a member of the coast guard
a woman comforting a man in a wheelchair

The Hidden Dangers of Asbestos

Asbestos is a health hazard when its fibers are damaged or disturbed, causing them to be airborne. At this point, they can be easily inhaled. These fibers are microscopic, and there are no immediate symptoms that would alert one to the fact that the fibers have been inhaled.

Health Effects

The health risk increases with prolonged exposure, but by the time symptoms emerge, decades may have passed and an incurable, terminal condition may have developed. The following conditions are associated with asbestos exposure:

You May Be Entitled to Compensation

If you have been diagnosed with an asbestos-related illness in conjunction with your service to the USCG, you may be entitled to compensation. The specific compensation you can receive will vary by whether you served as a Coastguardsman or a civilian.

Coast Guard Veterans

Coast Guard veterans are eligible to receive benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). These benefits are not available to civilian employees.

VA Health Care

The VA offers comprehensive health care coverage to veterans who served on active duty and received a discharge that is not dishonorable. Coverage includes but is not limited to the following:
preventative care

Preventive care

diagnostic tests

Diagnostic tests

medical treatment

Medical treatment

therapy

Therapy

rehabilitation

Rehabilitation

acute care

Acute care

prescription drugs

Prescription drugs

Treatment is available through your local VA medical center, VA health clinics and approved clinics outside the VA when VA services are unavailable in your local area. You can also receive reimbursement for travel expenses when it is necessary to travel long distances for treatment.

If you have been diagnosed with mesothelioma or other cancerous conditions related to asbestos exposure, your health care may be free.

Disability Compensation

Disability compensation is a tax-free monthly payment from the VA offered to veterans with a service-connected disability. A service-connected disability occurs when an injury or illness in the line of duty impacts everyday functioning.

The VA determines your degree of disability based on medical records or through a VA-administered health examination. Your degree of disability is known as a disability rating and is expressed as a percentage. The higher the percentage, the more significant the disability and the higher your monthly payout.
an old man in a wheelchair
an older couple

Disability Compensation

The VA pension is available to low-income veterans who served during wartime. You are not required to have a service-connected disability to qualify. If you qualify for a pension and disability, you will receive whichever payout results in the higher net payment. You cannot receive both benefits at the same time.

Veterans who receive a pension can also receive Aid and Attendance or Housebound benefits. These are allowances for veterans who need assistance due to disabilities that prevent them from performing daily tasks and self-care.

Family Members

Surviving family members of Coast Guard veterans with service-connected disabilities who pass away may be eligible for the following benefits:

Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC)

Tax-free monthly payments to dependent family members of veterans who passed away due to a service-connected injury or illness

Survivors’ pension benefits

Tax-free monthly payments to low-income surviving dependents of wartime veterans

Medical benefits

  • TRICARE for surviving family members of retired Coastguardsmen
  • CHAMPVA - a medical cost-sharing program for survivors who do not qualify for TRICARE

a woman resting her head on her hands

Civilians

Civilian employees do not have access to VA benefits, including disability, health care or pension benefits. However, civilian employees, retirees and their surviving family members do have access to similar benefits outside the VA.
an older couple hugging

Federal Employee Health Benefits (FEHB)

The FEHB program is available to Coast Guard civilian employees, retirees and their families. Surviving family members may also use the program after the death of the employee. Eligible family members include a spouse, children until the age of 26 and disabled children beyond the age of 26 who are unable to provide self-support.

Social Security Disability

Social Security Disability Insurance, or SSDI, provides monthly tax-free payments to qualified individuals with disabilities that are expected to last more than a year or result in death. To qualify, you must have paid enough into the Social Security system through payroll or self-employment taxes, and you must be able to prove your disability to Social Security.

a daughter hugging her mother
a social security card

Supplemental Security Income (SSI)

SSI is a monthly tax-free payment from Social Security. If you are over 65 or disabled, and if you have limited income and resources, you may qualify for SSI. You can receive SSI even if you have never paid into the Social Security system. You can apply for SSI or SSDI through the Social Security Administration’s website or in person at your local Social Security office.

Can I sue the USCG for my asbestos exposure?

If you were exposed to asbestos in the course of active duty while serving in the Coast Guard, you cannot sue the military, the VA or the U.S. government, according to the Feres Doctrine.

Supplemental Security Income (SSI)

The Feres Doctrine does not apply to civilians harmed by the USCG. The Federal Tort Claims Act of 1946 allows civilians to sue the U.S. government, including the Coast Guard.

If you were exposed in the shipyard located in Curtis Bay, any lawsuit would be subject to Maryland’s laws, including the statute of limitations, which is three years after you discover your injury, which is usually the date of your diagnosis. If you were exposed in another jurisdiction, the statute of limitations may vary.

Family members can also file a wrongful death lawsuit against the Coast Guard and sue for burial expenses in addition to the damages mentioned above. The above list is not an exhaustive list of the damages available. Punitive damages are not available in federal tort cases.
In a lawsuit, you may be able to recover the following damages:
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