Asbestos Exposure in the Navy
Exposure to Asbestos by Navy Veterans
Asbestos helped to reduce the risk posed by fire onboard Navy ships. This was a very serious risk, which was created by the heat and pressure from the operation of the ship itself. It was compounded by the possibility of enemy combat, which often involved the use of incendiary devices. On a crowded ship at sea, a fire could be extremely destructive if it was not quickly contained. The use of asbestos helped to contain fires and minimize their risk, so it was believed to save lives. This is a major part of the reason that asbestos was required in the construction of U.S. Navy ships for many years.
However, asbestos is also very damaging to the long-term health of people who are exposed. Although asbestos may have saved some sailors from being killed in fires, it caused significant loss of life over the succeeding decades due to asbestos-related diseases in Navy veterans who were exposed to this mineral during their service.
In the early 1980s, the Navy stopped using asbestos in the construction of new ships. People who served in the Navy before this time are at the greatest risk for service-related asbestos exposure. This includes veterans who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. After asbestos was no longer used in the construction of new ships, it still took a few more years to finish mitigation of asbestos on older ships, and some veterans continued to be exposed even after asbestos was no longer used in ship construction.
How Was Asbestos Used in the Navy?
Which Veterans Are at Greatest Risk for Asbestos Exposure?
Veterans themselves are at the highest risk, but the family members of those who served in the U.S. Navy may also be at risk for asbestos-related diseases. This is because asbestos fibers can easily travel on a person’s clothing, hair or skin and enter the air of the home. Family members may then breathe in the asbestos fibers, beginning the process of developing asbestos-related disease.
Family members of those who worked in shipyards are at a particularly high risk, as these veterans would return home to their families in the evenings directly from the shipyard, carrying asbestos along with them. Family members whose loved one served aboard a ship are likely to be at a lower risk, as the veteran was not returning home in the evenings and bringing along asbestos.
How Does Asbestos Cause Disease?
Asbestos tends to break into very tiny fibers. These fibers are so small that when they’re aerosolized, they can’t be seen, felt or even smelled. When a person inhales asbestos fibers, they can become embedded into the tissues of the lung. They can also work their way through the lung tissue into the pleura, which is a membrane that surrounds the lung. In addition, asbestos fibers can be coughed up and then swallowed; they can then become embedded into the tissues of the digestive system, and from there, they can work their way into the peritoneum, which is a membrane that surrounds the digestive system.
Any foreign substance will provoke an inflammatory reaction by the body. When asbestos fibers enter the tissues of the body, a strong inflammatory response occurs as the body attempts to break down and remove the foreign substance. However, because asbestos is so stable, the body is unable to break it down, and the inflammatory response is sustained over many years. Over time this inflammatory response can lead to a number of different diseases, including:
Because of the long latency periods, asbestos-related diseases most commonly occur in older people. Most veterans have retired by the time they develop asbestos-related disease. This tends to complicate the process of diagnosis, because many people don’t realize that their disease could be connected to an exposure that occurred many decades ago.
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