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Asbestos was a frequently utilized mineral in all military branches. It was used as an additive to other materials to make them heatproof, fire-resistant and more durable. Veterans in all branches of the military were exposed to asbestos while serving, and those who served in the United States Coast Guard experienced exposure similar to that of Navy veterans.

U.S. Coast Guard veterans, civilian workers and their families were exposed to asbestos from ships, shipyards and on military bases across the country. Structures and equipment constructed through the 1970s often contained the mineral and old, lingering materials may still leave those currently serving at risk of exposure.

Asbestos Exposure in Coast Guard Veterans

Asbestos had many uses in the United States Military. It was utilized in various construction materials for its lightweight properties and ability to withstand high temperatures and resist fire. Although asbestos-containing materials were inexpensive and durable, broken-down asbestos is a cause for concern. The mineral is a known carcinogen and veterans who were exposed to disturbed asbestos while serving are at risk of developing mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases.

Similar to Navy veterans, those in the Coast Guard were most often exposed to asbestos on ships and in shipyards, though they also faced exposure on military bases. Service members who carried out missions on Coast Guard Cutters, which are commissioned Coast Guard vessels with an assigned crew, and members who oversaw shipyard operations were likely exposed to asbestos when carrying out their duties.

On Coast Guard Cutters and Navy ships, asbestos could be found almost anywhere. Materials like asbestos insulation could be found in engine rooms, boiler rooms, pump rooms and other high-heat areas in the lower deck, but were also found in sleeping quarters, mess halls and other areas on board. Asbestos products, including pipe insulation and adhesives, were also found on ships. Records show that Coast Guard military members who served on cutters before 1991 may have been exposed to asbestos in thermal insulation and floor tiles. The confined spaces made it easy for disturbed asbestos fibers from these materials to travel through ships, exposing those who were working or serving. Navy and Coast Guard veterans who served in World War II were at the highest risk of asbestos exposure aboard ships, as ship production and asbestos use were both at their peak.

Asbestos exposure in shipyards occurred when ships were in construction or repairs were made to broken parts. Asbestos use in shipyards mainly consisted of adhesives and sealers that were made with asbestos, but the high exposure risk for workers in the yard came from disturbing asbestos from ships that required maintenance work. High-heat areas like boiler rooms and pump rooms required frequent maintenance work and were also areas of high asbestos use, causing asbestos fibers to become airborne and expose shipyard workers.

Coast Guard Veteran Mesothelioma Risk

Anyone who is exposed to asbestos is at risk of developing mesothelioma, a rare and aggressive cancer. Deterioration of equipment on Coast Guard ships and bases, as well as repair work that is required for asbestos-containing equipment, can cause asbestos fibers to be released. Once airborne, fibers may be inhaled or ingested, which can develop into serious health risks over time.

Military asbestos use was abundant, resulting in about 33% of all mesothelioma diagnoses being veterans. Records show that cases of mesothelioma are not as high in Coast Guard veterans as they are in Navy veterans, mainly because the Coast Guard is roughly one-tenth the size of the Navy. Despite this, Coast Guard veterans are still being diagnosed with mesothelioma, decades after serving. To help combat the risk of exposure and mesothelioma diagnosis, federal agencies work with the United States military to protect workers and active duty service members from asbestos exposure.

Protecting Coast Guard Veterans from Asbestos Exposure

In order to protect Coast Guard service members, the Coast Guard and other agencies have worked to develop regulations and laws to limit asbestos exposure. In the 1980s, the Coast Guard implemented the Occupational Medical Monitoring Program, which was designed to evaluate occupational exposure to asbestos and other hazardous chemicals. Through this program, marine inspectors evaluate ships for asbestos exposure and also monitor the health concerns of servicemen and women. Today, the program focuses on barges and smaller ships, but their priority is still on examining for hazardous contaminants.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) also holds the Coast Guard to high standards when it comes to levels of asbestos and other contaminants aboard ships, in shipyards and on bases across the country. Along with holding the Coast Guard accountable for the safe removal of asbestos and ensuring workers are provided with necessary respiratory equipment when in contact with the mineral, medical surveillance is also required for workers who are exposed to certain levels of asbestos for more than 30 days a year.

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