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Asbestos was used widely in all branches of the military throughout the 1900s due to its ability to resist heat, fire and chemical reactions. Marine Corps veterans may have been exposed to the cancer-causing toxin when traveling aboard Navy vessels or inside Marine Corps bases.

There are more than 20 million veterans in the United States who may have experienced asbestos exposure while serving in the armed forces. Today, more than 200,000 Marines who are currently in active duty or in the reserves may also be at risk of occupational asbestos exposure and developing asbestos-related diseases, like mesothelioma.

Asbestos Exposure in Marine Veterans

Many Marines have been exposed to asbestos products while serving the United States. The Marine Corps is a department within the Navy, the branch of the military with the most asbestos exposure. The proximity of the Marines to the Navy directly impacts the level of asbestos exposure experienced by members of the Corps. The servicemen and women may have faced exposure to the toxin while traveling on Navy ships or within Marine Corps provided housing.

Marines are often transported aboard Navy vessels to get from one conflict area to the next, or to return stateside. This practice has led to asbestos exposure aboard Navy ships that were known to be constructed with asbestos products to mitigate the risk of heat, fire or chemical reactions. Asbestos was used in the ships’ insulation, gaskets, valves and pipe coverings for steam pipes and hot water pipes, among other products. While aboard ship, the Marines are required to complete maintenance tasks in the same capacity as any member of the Navy on the vessel. During completion of these tasks, such as removing insulation, the asbestos products may be disturbed, releasing microscopic asbestos fibers into the air.

Ships used between World War II and the Vietnam War are among those that carry the greatest risk of asbestos. Many of these older ships are still in active use within the Navy’s fleet. As the ships age and their parts deteriorate, Marines living aboard the vessels and those assisting in maintenance are at an increased risk of asbestos inhalation. According to recent reports from Marine Corps Times, the Corps is also looking to increase their presence aboard Navy ships. This change could increase the number of Marines that may develop asbestos-related diseases including asbestosisasbestos lung cancer and mesothelioma.

Asbestos Exposure Risks on Land

Marine veterans who did not serve aboard Navy ships may have experienced exposure to asbestos while in Marine Corps barracks, other military buildings and Marine vehicles. Marine Corps’ structures commonly employed asbestos in their construction, and any Marines who frequented the spaces may have been exposed to the cancer-causing mineral. According to the Military Construction Appropriations Bill from 1996, more than one-fourth of the military housing was substandard at the time. The housing issues listed within the bill included the presence of asbestos.

Asbestos was widely used up to the 1980s, and could be found in adhesives, floor tiles, cement, insulation, boilers, and roofing materials, among other building materials. Reports have shown numerous Marine bases that utilized asbestos and have led to exposure, including the Marine Corps Logistics Base in Barstow, California and Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base in Camp Pendleton, CA. Marines may have encountered the material in their sleeping quarters, mess halls or any other room within the base.

In addition to the structural uses of asbestos, Marine Corps vehicles may also have contained the toxin. Asbestos could be found in automotive parts like clutches, transmission plates, brake pads and brake linings. Marines repairing service vehicles may have inhaled asbestos fibers.

Marine Veterans Mesothelioma Risk

Past members of the Marine Corps are among those with the highest risk of exposure to asbestos, due to their presence aboard Navy vessels. While asbestos was used in all military branches, U.S. Marine veterans should be aware of their high risk and seek professional medical advice. For example, Marine engineers who spent their time on Navy ships in direct contact with asbestos materials were found to have an increased risk of pleural abnormalities.

A study from the mid-1980s evaluated imaging scans of more than 5,000 Marines and found that 12% had pleural abnormalities, including calcification or diffuse thickening. These health effects are evidence of the dangers of asbestos and are often a precursor to more serious asbestos-related diseases, like mesothelioma cancer.

The late actor Steve McQueen, who died from mesothelioma, often cited his time in the Marines as the source of his asbestos exposure. His widow, Barbara Minty McQueen, has been working with the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO), mesothelioma survivors and family members impacted by asbestos disease to advocate for a ban on the toxin in the United States.

Merchant Mariners and Mesothelioma Risk

The Merchant Marines, like the Marine Corps, are an arm of the U.S. Navy. However, their service was largely on ships, more so than the general Marines. This time aboard vessels increased Merchant Mariners’ risk of developing asbestos-related diseases. One study analyzing chest X-rays of Merchant Marines from 1985 – 1987 found that one-third of the servicemen had organ or pleural abnormalities. These abnormalities stemming from asbestos exposure may be early indicators of mesothelioma, which has a long latency period and commonly doesn’t manifest until 10 – 50 years after exposure. The study found that Merchant Marines who work in the engine rooms and small spaces with poor ventilation, like the boiler rooms, are at an increased risk of asbestos-related diseases. Servicemen and women who spend extended periods of time in these cramped spaces should discuss their health risk with a medical professional.

Protecting Marine Veterans from Asbestos Exposure

The Marine Corps has published guidelines for the proper removal of asbestos-containing materials found on Marine Corps property. The Commanding General (CG) at each site is required to oversee the adherence to all local, state and federal regulations regarding asbestos abatement. Additionally, the removal of the toxin must follow all guidelines stipulated in the NAVMC OSH Directive 5100.8, MCAS Miramar Station Orders 5100.8 & 5100.3A and the Unified Facilities Guide Specifications (UFGS), which governs construction for the military.

Marine Corps veterans who have experienced asbestos exposure and may be facing a battle with mesothelioma cancer should seek care with a mesothelioma specialist. These experienced physicians can help patients and their families discern the treatment options best suited for their individual case.

Marine veterans should also reach out to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to learn about the potential VA benefits available to them.

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