For much of the 20th century, asbestos products were common in the U.S. military because of their ability to insulate and fireproof. Every branch of the armed forces used asbestos in the construction of ships, tanks, trucks, aircraft, barracks and other buildings.
The military purchased asbestos products from manufacturers who withheld information about the dangers of inhaling the toxic mineral. This put service members who handled asbestos products and lived in asbestos-insulated quarters at risk.
As a result, thousands of American veterans have developed asbestos-related diseases. Many veterans, including those with mesothelioma, are eligible to file an asbestos VA claim to receive compensation and health care benefits.
Asbestos Exposure by Military Branch
Asbestos in the US Navy
The U.S. Navy covered its ships from bow to stern with asbestos products, utilizing their effective fireproofing qualities but effectively exposing everyone on board to the toxic material in the process. Navy veterans today are paying the price for those manufacturing decisions.
Nearly one-third of people who file mesothelioma lawsuits are veterans, and a majority of those have a Navy service record.
The worst areas for exposure were below-deck compartments such as boiler rooms, engine rooms, ammunition storage rooms, and even mess halls and sleeping quarters.
A 2019 study published in the International Journal of Radiation Biology shows mesothelioma mortality is higher among Navy personnel than any other branch. Job categories with the highest potential of asbestos exposure included machinist’s mates, boiler technicians, water tenders and pipe fitters.
Service members from the U.S. Army were exposed to asbestos fibers throughout much of the 20th century, mostly in buildings where they ate, slept and worked. Asbestos materials covered pipes, and the toxic mineral was an ingredient in flooring, roofing and cement.
While the use of asbestos in new construction ended by the late 1970s, it remained present in Army installations decades later. Asbestos was among the top contaminants at 32 Army bases that were closed or realigned at the end of the century, requiring $1 billion in environmental cleanup.
The U.S. Air Force used asbestos in planes, radar stations and bases where men and women were stationed. Asbestos made an ideal insulating material in aircraft, which needed cockpit heat protection, heat shields and durable valves, gaskets, electrical wiring and brakes.
Air Force mechanics were especially at risk, often inhaling asbestos fibers during routine maintenance. Pilots who flew the aircraft were vulnerable, too, when sitting in a cockpit with an asbestos coating.
Members of the U.S. Coast Guard were often exposed to asbestos on ships. All areas surrounding engine and boiler rooms were insulated with asbestos, and the ropes used throughout ships were woven with asbestos fibers. Many sections of ships were coated with asbestos insulation and fireproofing.
The Coast Guard, like all branches of the military, has been diligent in recent years in protecting its members. It isn’t just the ships where asbestos has threatened members of the Coast Guard. Asbestos endangers them in housing structures and buildings around Coast Guard bases. Members now must sign a Disclosure of Environmental Health Hazards in Coast Guard Housing contracts if they are moving into any structure built before 1981.
Although asbestos use has been significantly reduced in the last three decades, the long latency period of mesothelioma still leaves many at risk. It can take anywhere from 20 to 50 years after exposure to asbestos fibers for mesothelioma symptoms to appear.
Asbestos products were also used on the noncombat cargo ships of the U.S. Merchant Marine. Numerous studies have documented the harmful effects of asbestos exposure on merchant crewmen and their increased rate of respiratory diseases.
Many merchant mariners served on Liberty Ships, which transported war materials to places of conflict. Because of the large amount of asbestos used to construct these ships, their scrap metal is worthless when the cost of disposing of the asbestos is considered.
Although the use of asbestos has diminished since the 1980s, many of the places where national guardsmen serve still have old asbestos materials, leaving guardsmen exposed to the long-term dangers.
In 2009, for example, the Missouri Army National Guard armory in Cape Girardeau underwent a $1.5 million renovation, which revealed asbestos products all throughout a building originally constructed in 1953.
In 1993, the city of Westminster, Maryland, paid $15,000 to remove all the asbestos from a former National Guard armory that it had purchased a year earlier.
Guardsmen can also be exposed to asbestos when responding to emergency situations. Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the National Guard deployed 50,000 troops to the Gulf States, where they performed rescue missions that sent them into damaged homes and buildings filled with asbestos.
Exposure During Wartime
World War II
There are no records available that can accurately count the number of World War II veterans who have died of asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma. Yet no generation of war heroes was more vulnerable to the ravages of this toxic mineral.
Asbestos products were considered ideal for ships and submarines by Navy leaders — except the surgeon general of the Navy, who reported his concerns over the health hazards of asbestos in 1939. Unfortunately, his warnings were ignored, and the Army, Air Force and Marines all followed the Navy’s lead.
Even before America entered World War II, asbestos was classified by government officials as a critical material. Worldwide demand for the product was outpacing the supply and causing shortages that alarmed military leaders early in the war.
Asbestos-Related Deaths of WWII
Decorated Navy Admiral Elmo Zumwalt died of mesothelioma, the rare cancer caused by asbestos. Zumwalt was a career officer who served in World War II and later became the youngest man in American history to serve as United States Chief of Naval Operations.
An exposure to asbestos early in Zumwalt’s Navy career likely caused the disease that killed him at age 80 in January 2000.
Frank Curre of Waco, Texas, died in 2011. The Navy veteran survived the attack on Pearl Harbor but died from mesothelioma on the 70th anniversary of the bombing in Hawaii that pulled America into the war.
During the Korean War, asbestos was used in virtually every mode of transportation: Ships, tanks, aircraft, jeeps and trucks. More than 300 products or parts on ships built during the Korean and Vietnam War eras contained asbestos.
Jeff Burdine, a Navy veteran from Salem, Ohio, served two years aboard the USS Neosho during the Korean War. He was diagnosed with asbestosis in 2012, according to the News Herald of Port Clinton.
One of his regular jobs was cleaning steam pipes wrapped in asbestos insulation. Because his post-Navy working career never involved asbestos, he believed the Navy was his only source of exposure, which made him eligible for compensation from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The Korean War Educator includes a memoir section that details the asbestos exposure and mesothelioma diagnosis of Navy veteran Allen Johnson from Smithville, Utah. He served aboard the USS Randall, working in an engine room laced with asbestos dust.
In 2004, in compensation for his mesothelioma diagnosis caused by that asbestos exposure, he began receiving a monthly check of $894. He was grateful for it, but it was hardly enough for a shortened lifespan that stemmed from serving his country.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, America averaged an annual consumption of more than 700,000 tons of asbestos from 1964 to 1975, the latter years of the Vietnam War. The all-time high was 803,000 tons in 1973.
During the Vietnam era, as in the two wars before, asbestos was used in virtually all forms of military transportation, including tanks, aircraft, jeeps, trucks and ships.
“We had no idea [about asbestos then], no one did,” said Marine Corps veteran David Cutts of New Jersey, who was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2005, almost 40 years after returning from his six months in Vietnam. He believes his asbestos exposure occurred on a Navy ship used to transport troops.
Hamilton Jordan, who was the White House Chief of Staff for Jimmy Carter, died of mesothelioma in 2008. He also attributed it to asbestos exposure from his military service during the Vietnam War.
Wars in Iraq & Afghanistan
While asbestos use in the U.S. military dropped significantly after the Vietnam era, the asbestos industry has boomed in Iraq, Afghanistan and other war-torn countries. These nations continue to use the low-cost material to rebuild infrastructure as economically as possible.
The ongoing unregulated use of asbestos poses serious long-term health risks to the residents of the Middle East and U.S. military members deployed there.
Military operations have disturbed asbestos-containing materials in older buildings in Iraq and Afghanistan, sending toxic fibers into the fierce desert winds that spread the contamination for miles.
In addition, Afghanistan receives considerable amounts of asbestos from nearby Kazakhstan, one of the world’s biggest exporters of asbestos.
The International Ban Asbestos Secretariat said in a report that “an increase in demand for asbestos-containing building products to rebuild Afghanistan has led to increased local production.” In addition, it reported little awareness by Afghan residents about the long-term health risks of handling asbestos.
In 2009, liability lawsuits in nine states were filed against Kellogg, Brown and Root, an American construction company operating in Iraq and Afghanistan. KBR was accused of creating open-air burn pits that released asbestos and other toxic chemicals into the air, putting U.S. service members at risk.