For many decades, asbestos was regarded as a near-miraculous substance for industrial and commercial use. Asbestos is fireproof, lightweight, largely immune to corrosion, and has tremendous insulating properties – and to make it even better, you can weave it like cloth and use it in a wide variety of flexible applications. It is no wonder that asbestos was used in so many thousands of products and processes.
Unfortunately, this miracle substance comes with a terrible cost – asbestos causes malignant mesothelioma, a lethal cancer that affects thousands of people exposed to asbestos in the course of their lives. Equally unfortunately, one of the areas where asbestos was used most frequently and most ubiquitously was the US armed services, most especially in the US Navy.
In the Army and Air Force, asbestos was used in brake pads and clutch assemblies, and was part of the insulation for barracks, offices, and fabrication and repair plants. It was woven around water pipes, formed into protective clothing, and used as insulation in tanks and planes. These uses were widespread and many hundreds of thousands of soldiers and airmen were exposed to asbestos in this fashion.
In the US Navy things were even worse, because every ship of the Navy used asbestos as a thermal insulator throughout the ship, in close quarters and confined spaces with poor air circulation. From 1939 until 1979, every US Navy ship used asbestos everywhere. Much work aboard ship is done in cramped compartments with little or no ventilation, where fibers could accumulate in the air to deadly effect. Sailors and shipyard workers breathed in that asbestos-contaminated air for years, working without respirators because they had no knowledge that asbestos could lead to mesothelioma and other deadly diseases.
Because mesothelioma has a latency period of anywhere from 20 to 50 years, it is only today that many of these brave soldiers, sailors and airmen are developing this deadly malady. Many sailors, in particular, went on to ship-building careers after their Navy stints, worsening their exposure to asbestos as they worked as insulators, pipefitters, and boilermakers.
Even those who did not have further asbestos exposure are still at risk, however. One of the deadly things about mesothelioma is that the body is not able to clear out asbestos fibers over time, the way it can with other carcinogenic substances. Once the asbestos exposure was received, the fibers persisted in the body doing their harm year after year. Many former sailors whose only asbestos exposure took place during their military service have succumbed to malignant mesothelioma or other asbestos-related diseases. The Navy declines to release information about how many sailors have died from asbestos-related causes, but other sources indicate that one mesothelioma patient in four is a former Navy man or shipyard worker.
Unlike workers in other asbestos-using industries, Navy veterans cannot sue the government for compensation for the damage to their health. They can, however, apply to the Veterans Administration for healthcare benefits to acquire treatment for mesothelioma, or for disability payments. This can be a difficult and bureaucratic process, however.