Malignant mesothelioma is a rare cancer that few people survive. This disease has made the news in recent years due to lawsuits filed against companies that do not disclose their knowledge of the potential toxic results of asbestos exposure.

The most famous victim of mesothelioma was Steve McQueen, who died in 1980 at the age of 50. McQueen was an iconic actor from the 1960s and 1970s. One of his best-known roles was Virgil Hilts, “The Cooler King”, in the movie “The Great Escape.” Hilts’ character was an Air Force pilot during World War II.

In real life, McQueen served in the United States Marine Corps. According to the National Archives, he entered the service in 1947 and was honorably discharged in 1950. It was during those years that he may have been exposed to the asbestos that caused his cancer and ended his life.

A Veteran Health Risk

Of the many groups distinctly affected by mesothelioma, United States military veterans have some of the highest health risks. In fact, nearly 30 percent of all mesothelioma cases can be traced to military service. Veterans in all branches of the military are at risk, especially Navy personnel.

The Navy used asbestos everywhere: engine rooms, boiler rooms, storage rooms, navigational rooms, galleys, mess halls, sleeping quarters and more. Asbestos covered the ceilings, walls and floors of these rooms. The Army, Air Force, Marine Corp, Coast Guard and National Guard also used asbestos, but not to the extent of the Navy. For many servicemen, asbestos exposure was unavoidable.

Veterans who served during World War II, the Korean Conflict, and the Vietnam Conflict are more likely to develop mesothelioma than those who served in other wars. In later wars, some veterans likely encountered asbestos in older vehicles, machinery and equipment. Iraq War veterans may have been exposed to asbestos from old buildings that were destroyed or damaged.

The Miracle Mineral

At one time, asbestos was known as a miracle mineral. Made from six naturally occurring minerals, it had many desirable properties. It was strong, durable, heat resistant and flame retardant. Asbestos was a favorite additive for many American manufacturers and the United States military used many of their products.

Asbestos was used extensively in Navy shipyards, construction projects, and the automotive industry. It was a manufacturing mainstay from the Industrial Revolution until the mid-1970s, when the federal government banned most asbestos use.

The miracle mineral was found to be a cancer-causing toxin. In a solid state, it posed relatively few health problems. However, many things could damage the material: age deterioration, breaks, tears, cuts, and sanding during installation. When this happened, tiny asbestos fibers were released from the material and became airborne.

When asbestos particles are breathed into the lungs, they can embed themselves and cause disease over time. Unfortunately, mesothelioma symptoms do not appear until the cancer is in the advanced stage. The latency period for this cancer can be 40 years or more.

Federal Government Assistance

The United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) lists several occupations that may have exposed veterans to asbestos poisoning. They are shipbuilding, insulation work, construction, demolition, mining, and milling are among them.

Former members of the United States military may be eligible for government assistance if their health problems are linked to asbestos exposure during their service. They are encouraged to talk to their health care provider or an environmental health coordinator for the VA.

Veterans who qualify for assistance may receive health care benefits or disability compensation. In some cases, their dependents are also eligible for financial assistance. Additional information about asbestos-related health problems is available from the Agency of Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.