During the peak exposure years of 1930 to 1970, many American veterans were told not to worry about the potential health effects of asbestos, Agent Orange or ionizing radiation exposure. Even so, asbestos was one of the top contaminants within army installations as late as 1990. It was only new construction and products that were discontinued in the late 1970s. Today, those same service men and women continue to be in danger from past exposures to many military-related asbestos applications.

Over 30 percent of all individuals diagnosed with mesothelioma are veterans. With approximately 3,000 individuals diagnosed annually with mesothelioma, those who have served their country remain at serious risk for this type of cancer as well as skin, prostate and lung cancer. Despite the danger, those currently serving in Iraq are still being exposed to potential carcinogens.

All Military Personnel are at Risk

Certain military groups carry a higher risk than other personnel do. These groups include those involved with Navy shipyards, ship boiler rooms, mines, the construction industry and demolition teams. Due to the prevalence of asbestos in a wide variety of insulation applications, fire-retardant clothing, materials and military gear, all veterans and their friends and families carry a certain degree of risk for service-related cancers and conditions, not just those in the Navy. The actor Steve McQueen is a good example of that.

Steve McQueen died on November 7, 1980 at the age of 50 from peritoneal mesothelioma. What is mesothelioma? Well it is a particularly aggressive cancer that affects the lining of the lungs, heart or abdomen. Being exposed to asbestos is the only way you can get mesothelioma. In Steve’s case, he served as a U.S. Marine from 1947 to 1950. He worked at shipyards where he stripped asbestos from pipes used on Navy ships. Diagnosed in 1979, his fight with cancer was long and painful. Like today, the prognosis back then was dim. There is no cure for this type of cancer.

Treatments, dietary interventions and exercise can help lengthen your life, but there is no way to get the asbestos out of your lungs once it gets in there. Unfortunately, service men and women are not the only ones at risk. Due to its stickiness, its tendency to get all over everything like pet hair and the easiness with which it passes from one person to another, families and friends of those exposed to asbestos can accidently breath in the fibers the same way.

In addition, the symptoms of breathing difficulties, exhaustion and coughing mimic many other disease states or simple viruses, so diagnosis is often delayed until the cancer is well advanced. By the time Steve McQueen was diagnosed, he was already physically weak and seriously ill. This lengthy dormant period between exposure and diagnosis often extends as far as 50 years. In Steve’s case, it was a little more than 30.

Extensive Military Use of Asbestos

The military began using asbestos as early as World War II due to its fire-retardant and extremely proficient insulation capabilities. At that time, it was not known to be dangerous or carcinogenic, so it was used extensively in all sorts of products including military vehicles, aircraft, clothing, buildings and military housing. Millions of personnel and their families were exposed to the toxic substance before any danger of mesothelioma was realized.

In addition, older buildings and structures known to include asbestos have not been torn down and replaced. While risk is confined to breathing in the fibers or dust created when the particles become airborne, damaged buildings such as what happens during time of war, demolition or simple wear and tear puts everyone present at risk. Due to differences in laws outside of the United States, troops who currently serve in Afghanistan or Iraq continue to be exposed to the dangers of asbestos without adequate protection.

If you were exposed to asbestos during your length of service, was close to someone who was or just believes you might have been, it’s a good idea to discuss any concerns you have about that potential asbestos exposure with your doctor. This is especially important if you are experiencing breathing difficulties or have any lung issues, even minor ones.