Navy Veterans and Mesothelioma

In 1939, the United States Navy mandated the use of asbestos onboard all naval ships as a matter of national security. The result? Hundreds of thousands of veterans who worked onboard military vessels between 1940 and the early 1980s were put at risk for developing malignant mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases.

Navy Veterans and Mesothelioma

Navy veterans are among the occupational groups with the highest incidence of mesothelioma. Medical experts estimate that as many as 15 percent of all mesothelioma cases are diagnosed in Navy veterans.

Until the late 1970s, asbestos insulation was widely regarded as the best protection against the threat of fire at sea because it is flameproof and exceptionally heat resistant. The heavy equipment used on military ships generates a great deal of heat. Asbestos was used to protect pipes and machinery in shipboard engine and boiler rooms. Asbestos was incorporated into electrical insulation, gaskets and pipe-fittings. Asbestos was a component in the cement, floor boards, paint, sealants, plumbing equipment and other construction materials used to build the structural parts of the ship like galleys and sleeping quarters. Asbestos was even sprayed on to ship hulls in aerosol form to safeguard the vessels further against the risk of fire. All told, nearly 300 asbestos-containing products were commonly used in building Navy ships.

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At high temperatures, under heavy use, asbestos breaks down into dust containing high concentrations of asbestos microfibers. When sailors inhaled this dust, these microfibers lodge in their lungs, inflaming parenchymal tissues and initiating cellular changes that, over time, developed into asbestos-related disease. Since conditions on board Navy ships were typically cramped and poorly ventilated, there was no place to escape from these toxic dust clouds. Navy veterans who worked below deck ran the highest risk of developing mesothelioma because there simply was no way for the asbestos-containing dust clouds to dissipate.

Sailors were not the only shipyard workers exposed to asbestos. It's been estimated that 185,000 people worked in U.S. shipyards between 1940 and 1970. As shipbuilders hammered, sawed and reshaped asbestos-containing building materials, they too released clouds of asbestos-containing dust that could be inhaled by every employee working in those shipyards, whether these employees worked directly with asbestos directly or not.

Asbestos and Mesothelioma

Asbestos is a naturally occurring, fibrous mineral, prized since ancient times for its resistance to heat, flame and most forms of chemical corrosion. As long ago as the 1st century AD, the Roman physician Pliny the Elder noticed that slaves charged with weaving asbestos fibers into cloth developed deadly pulmonary maladies.

In the 18th century, the advent of the Industrial Revolution transformed manufacturing into an automated process involving the use of heavy, steam-powered machinery that generated large amounts of heat. Asbestos insulation was viewed as the perfect way to prevent these machines from overheating, and became used extensively in factories and mills throughout the United States.

In the 1920s and 1930s, insurance companies began denying coverage to asbestos workers. During that same period, clinical reports began to appear in journals like The Journal of the American Medical Association and the American Journal of Public Health, confirming the link between occupational asbestos exposure and deadly lung diseases like mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma is a cancer that targets the membranes lining the thoracic, peritoneal and pericardial cavities. The disease is typically characterized by a prolonged incubation period. Very often an interval of 20 to 50 years will elapse between a worker's initial asbestos exposure and subsequent mesothelioma diagnosis. It wasn't until the 1970s that federal agencies like the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) started issuing regulations that limited the use of asbestos in the work place. That means workers first exposed to asbestos during the 1960s and 1970s may be learning of their mesothelioma diagnoses for the very first time today.

Mesothelioma and Veterans Benefits

Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits will cover mesothelioma treatment if a veteran can prove first that his or her mesothelioma is related to asbestos exposure, and second that the asbestos exposure occurred while the veteran was serving in the military. The VA benefits application course can be tricky, but the Veterans Assistance Network is dedicated to providing eligible veterans with support and assistance throughout the process. The Veterans Assistance Network's Executive Director Carl Jewett retired from the Navy as an LCDR (O-4), after 20 years of service, in order to devote all his time to helping veterans understand mesothelioma better and achieve the best outcome possible given their medical diagnosis.

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