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Veterans Day is a chance for Americans to thank the men and women who served their country. Throughout their time of service, many veterans were exposed to asbestos. Veterans comprise approximately 30% of all mesothelioma diagnoses. All branches of the armed services used asbestos to increase durability and heat- and fire-resistance of machinery and lodging.

The mineral was used aboard ships, in shipyards, airplanes, vehicles and on military bases. Although all branches of the military are known to have used asbestos, naval personnel are among the most at risk of developing asbestos-related diseases. The health effects of veterans’ asbestos exposure continue to be studied today.


Atomic Veterans and Mesothelioma

Veterans risked asbestos exposure in a number of ways. Asbestos was used in shipyards, on naval vessels and throughout military bases. Job duties often resulted in veterans’ exposure to asbestos and, years later, the development of asbestos-caused diseases.

According to a recent study, veterans involved in above-ground atomic testing from 1945 – 1962 had significantly higher mesothelioma mortality rates than veterans who did not participate in the testing. During this time, the United States military conducted 230 above-ground atmospheric nuclear weapons tests. These tests involved more than 250,000 members of the military.

Researchers studied approximately 114,000 of the veterans involved in the nuclear tests. The veterans were categorized by service, rank and work location. According to the data collected, veterans most impacted by asbestos exposure at the test sites were:

Among these three groups of veterans, those exposed to asbestos also had similar job duties.

Job Categories with the Highest Potential for Asbestos Exposure
  • Boiler technicians
  • Firemen
  • Machinist’s mates
  • Pipefitters
  • Water tenders

The other branches of the military analyzed within the study included the Army, Air Force and Marines. These branches were found to have no increase in mesothelioma rates.

The veterans most impacted by mesothelioma were determined to be on naval ships known to contain asbestos. Ships often used asbestos within storage rooms, boiler rooms and pump rooms. These areas posed the greatest risk of high heat, and asbestos was used for insulating and fireproofing an array of materials.

Military Personnel Continue to Face Asbestos Exposure

By the 1970s and 1980s, the United States implemented various asbestos regulations to help restrict its use and protect citizens from exposure. However, asbestos is still legal to use in some applications in the United States and in many other countries.

Servicemen and women may still be exposed to the dangerous mineral in buildings across the world. When damaged, asbestos-containing structures and ships may release asbestos fibers into the air. The exposure risk is compounded in regions facing war, natural disasters and other areas where United States military intervention may be required.

According to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), veterans serving in the Middle East and Southeast Asia are among those most at risk.

In particular, asbestos use and regulations in Middle Eastern countries are a concern. There are currently seven Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and India, that have completely banned asbestos use. However, the full bans are not strictly enforced.

According to a contractor from Dubai, buildings constructed as recently as 2018 contained asbestos materials. This continued use of asbestos puts all military personnel serving overseas at risk of exposure.

High-risk job categories identified by the VA include:

Asbestos exposure while serving overseas is hard to quantify, as regulations and enforcement vary between countries. Veterans concerned about potential asbestos exposure when serving internationally may consult VA offices about known asbestos risk in specific countries.

Options for Veterans Diagnosed with Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases commonly take 10 – 50 years to present. Veterans who develop an illness as a result of occupational asbestos exposure may be eligible for disability benefits from the VA and can receive treatment at specialized VA cancer clinics.

Veterans may also qualify for additional healthcare benefits through the VA. Medical exams, surgeries, treatments and specialized intensive care may all be covered through VA benefits. These benefits may also help veterans who believe they have been exposed to asbestos in the past, but may not currently show symptoms of disease. Access to these medical exams and screenings can lead to an early diagnosis and improved prognosis.