From 1930 to about 1980 virtually every ship commissioned by the United States Navy employed asbestos insulation as a critical design and construction element. In World War II the hundreds of ships that were launched as transports, destroyers, cruisers, carriers and battleships carried tons of asbestos insulation. Its principal use was in engine rooms, where boilers and piping systems provided constant exposure to asbestos coatings that were subject to fraying and wear.
When asbestos products decay or are damaged, they give off asbestos fibers that can be inadvertently inhaled by workers in the area. Asbestos fibers settle in the lungs, the lung linings or in the abdominal cavity and can eventually cause mesothelioma, a deadly form of cancer that often does not develop for decades after the asbestos exposure has occurred.
World War II Era
Statistics bear out the degree to which Navy personnel both on board naval craft and working in naval shipyards suffered harmful exposure to asbestos. Since 1999 when the Federal Government first started tracking asbestos related deaths a good statistical database has caused profiles for the most frequent victims to emerge. Thirty percent of all American victims of mesothelioma are veterans. The greatest proportion of these is Navy veterans, including shipyard workers.
Asbestos insulation was not only employed in engine rooms, but also as insulation for the elaborate piping systems throughout the ships – particularly larger ships. When vessels returned to port for refitting and repair, shipyard workers were charged with quick removal of damaged materials; during wartime speed was essential. That meant tearing out hundreds of square yards of insulation without regard for physical protection, which was largely unrecognized as a necessity for asbestos exposure up to about 1970.
After 1980 the Navy got fairly active about stripping its ships of asbestos insulation for engine rooms, pipes and firewalls. However Vietnam era veterans who were put to work on older transport vessels were by no means immune to asbestos exposure, although the degree of risk was significantly below that of the WWII era. The veterans who served in the 1960s and 1970s were certainly exposed to the asbestos found in barracks and service structures on bases constructed during World War II, many of which are still in service today and still undergoing renovation to remove asbestos floor tiles, ceiling tiles, cement, wallboard and insulation.
The VA and Asbestos Exposure
After years of ducking and dodging, the VA has accepted partial responsibility for treating Navy veterans who have developed asbestos related diseases. The veteran has to prove that asbestos exposure during active duty caused the disease, not an easy task with an illness that averages a latency period of thirty years or more. Because mesothelioma diagnosis often comes after the disease has matured into a rapidly growing malignancy, mesothelioma prognosis is often poor. The average survival rate after diagnosis has been less than two years, but it is improving as earlier diagnoses are being made.
The VA has developed some state of the art cancer treatment facilities, some of which can diagnose asbestos diseases quickly because they are more likely to look for evidence of mesothelioma first. They are also becoming more adept at diagnosing the less common forms of the disease such as peritoneal mesothelioma – a form of the disease that develops in the abdomen.
Much like Agent Orange, asbestos and mesothelioma have been grudgingly admitted to the ranks of military related diseases decades after the issue was raised. For veterans today, especially older ones, it’s important to take that persistent cough and intermittent chest pain to a physician early, because early diagnosis of mesothelioma or asbestosis can make a tremendous difference in both the length and quality of your remaining years.