Asbestos Exposure in the Navy

Exposure to asbestos is the primary risk factor for the development of mesothelioma, and it can also cause other diseases, including asbestosis and lung cancer. These diseases often develop decades after a person is exposed to asbestos.

In general, military veterans are at a very high risk for asbestos-related diseases. Research indicates that around 30 percent of the cases of malignant pleural mesothelioma in the United States occur in veterans. Navy veterans are at a particularly high risk because of the widespread use of asbestos on U.S. Navy ships over the course of several decades.

Exposure to Asbestos by Navy Veterans

Asbestos is an extremely stable mineral. This makes it resistant to corrosion by salt and chemicals. It’s also highly resistant to heat and is not flammable. All of these properties made asbestos useful on ships, particularly military ships. In fact, the U.S. Navy required the use of asbestos on ships for many decades.

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?

The chemically stable and heat resistant nature of asbestos made it useful for a variety of applications throughout a ship. Some of the places that asbestos could be found on a U.S. Navy ship include:

  • Insulation for heated equipment, such as boilers, water heaters and pipes
  • Insulation on electrical wiring, instrument panels and other electrical equipment
  • Deck flooring and bulkheads as well as paint used on walls and ceilings for fireproofing
  • Valves, gaskets, sealants and adhesives
  • Protective clothing and gloves used for handling hot items
  • Bedding, in order to make it fireproof

Which veterans are at greatest risk for asbestos exposure?

Almost any Navy veteran who served aboard a ship or worked in a shipyard could potentially have been exposed to asbestos. Because asbestos was used throughout a ship, every person onboard could potentially have been exposed. In addition, asbestos fibers are very small and travel easily in the air, and aerosolized asbestos fibers could travel throughout a ship’s air system. If a ship saw enemy combat, asbestos-containing materials could be damaged, causing asbestos fibers to become aerosolized.

Navy veterans were often posted to a ship for months at a time, putting them at risk for sustained exposure to asbestos fibers. A longer duration of asbestos exposure is associated with a higher risk for asbestos-related diseases later in life.

While anyone on board the ship could potentially be exposed to asbestos, there were certain people who were at a greater risk, including:

  • Laggers and others who worked directly with insulation, which generally contained asbestos
  • Firefighters and others who performed damage control, who often wore protective gear that contained asbestos and may also have been exposed to asbestos released from damaged parts of the ship
  • Pipefitters and others who worked with water systems, who were exposed to pipe insulation as well as seals and gaskets that contained asbestos
  • Electricians, who were exposed to asbestos insulation on electrical wiring and other electrical parts
  • Maintenance technicians, who may have been exposed to asbestos in the ship’s decking, hull or other ship parts
  • Metalsmiths and welders, who often used protective gear that contained asbestos
  • Those who operated and/or maintained weapons systems, who also often used protective gear that contained asbestos

In addition to those who served on board the ship itself, the veterans who built and maintained ships in naval shipyards were at significant risk for asbestos exposure. For example, in the process of cutting and fitting insulation materials, a worker would be exposed to high levels of aerosolized asbestos.

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?

The very properties of asbestos that made it so useful on Navy ships are the same ones that also make it dangerous to human health. Asbestos is extremely chemically stable and is resistant to being broken down. Although it may seem that a stable material is unlikely to harm the body, it’s exactly this property that leads to asbestos-related diseases.

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:

  • Asbestosis. This is a disease in which there is scarring throughout the lung, which is caused by the sustained inflammatory response. The scar tissue interferes with the functions of the lung. Scar tissue is stiff rather than elastic, so the lung slowly hardens, making it more difficult for the patient to breathe.
  • Mesothelioma. This is a rare type of cancer that occurs in the membranes surrounding certain organs. The inflammation provoked by asbestos can cause damage to the cells of the pleura or peritoneum. This can lead to changes in the DNA of those cells, which can then lead them to become cancerous. Asbestos is most strongly associated with the development of pleural mesothelioma (in the membrane around the lungs), but can also cause peritoneal mesothelioma (in the membrane around the digestive system). Asbestos exposure is the primary risk factor for developing mesothelioma.
  • Lung cancer, which occurs in the tissue of the lung itself rather than in the surrounding pleura. The mechanisms by which asbestos causes lung cancer are essentially the same as for mesothelioma; the inflammatory response damages the DNA of cells, leading them to become cancerous. However, while mesothelioma is almost always caused by asbestos exposure, there are also other risk factors for lung cancer, particularly smoking cigarettes. Many Navy veterans who were exposed to asbestos were also smokers. Nonsmokers who were exposed to asbestos have 10 times the risk of lung cancer as nonsmokers who weren’t exposed, while smokers who were exposed to asbestos have 50 times the risk.

It often takes a long time between exposure to asbestos and the development of disease. The incidence of asbestosis peaks 30 to 35 years after exposure to asbestos, while lung cancer and mesothelioma commonly occur 40 or more years after exposure. This period of time is known as the latency period.

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.

Assistance for Navy Veterans Exposed to Asbestos

The costs of treating asbestos-related disease can be a significant burden for many Navy veterans and their families. In many cases, asbestos-related diseases (including asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer) are considered service-related by the Veterans Administration (VA). This may allow veterans to receive compensation from the VA.

Filing a claim requires paperwork to prove the veteran’s exposure to asbestos while in the military, along with medical and other documentation. There are various databases that can be useful in proving a particular veteran’s exposure to asbestos. These include the locations and dates where significant levels of asbestos are known to have been present. When compared with the veteran’s service records, service-related asbestos exposure can be demonstrated. This process can be complex; it may be helpful to contact a specialist who can help you navigate the required paperwork.