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Asbestos and the Military

Asbestos related illnesses disproportionately affect military service members due to The United States government’s reliance on the harmful substance in all branches of our armed forces. It is estimated that as many as one third of those diagnosed with mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer due to asbestos were at one time military service men and women. Though there are benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs to assist victims and their families suffering from the effects of asbestos and asbestos containing materials (ACM), it is often not enough. A former service member cannot sue the government for damages incurred during military service, but it is possible to file suit against the companies that received the government contracts that produced asbestos products for the military.

What is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that is both strong, flexible, and fire resistant. There are few substitutes that contain similar qualities as asbestos and it was heavily used in the building and manufacturing industries for insulation, tiles, roofing shingles, textiles and many more. The problems with asbestos come when it is disturbed by breaking, cutting, scoring, sanding, etc. In its dormant state it is relatively harmless but when asbestos fibers go airborne in the form of dust particles, they are easily inhaled. The microscopic fibers of asbestos get trapped in the lining of the respiratory and will never dissipate or filter. It can take decades of these fibers agitating cells for the effects to show, but when they do, it can be deadly.

History of Asbestos use in the U.S. Military

From the 1930’s to the 1970’s, the military relied heavily on the mineral because of its resiliency and inability to burn. It was used for fire-proofing virtually all vehicles used by the military including ships, tanks, planes, smaller combat vehicles, and recreational vehicles. It was also used in most structures on bases in the form of insulation and roofing shingles. When lawsuits started piling up in the 1960’s against companies that produced and manufactured asbestos and ACM’s, the government could no longer hide or justify the fact that it was used so heavily under their watch. By the 1980’s asbestos use by the military had pretty much ceased but the infrastructure was in place and asbestos was a large part of it. Because asbestos is virtually harmless in its dormant state there are always difficult decisions to be made about whether to extract the material or just leave it be until absolutely necessary. This means that even today, bases and ships built before the 1980’s are likely to still contain asbestos. This can cause massive problems later if the demolition or extraction is not administered properly by trained and protected workers. For example, when the World Trade Center buildings fell in September of 2001, an estimated 410,000 people were exposed to colossal amounts of asbestos fibers.

Positions Most Likely to be Affected

Members of the Navy had the highest amount of exposure during the process of shipbuilding and then as occupants of the ships. During the height of asbestos use by the military which included World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, nearly every ship commissioned by the Navy contained asbestos insulation throughout the interior and pipes which could be as much as several tons.

It would have also lined the walls of sleep quarters, mess halls and navigation rooms. Statistics show that the crew members of these ships and especially the workers in the shipyards had high amounts of exposure to airborne asbestos fibers.

Other branches of the military including the Air Force and Marines were exposed as well via insulation, dry wall, stucco and other building materials was asbestos was incorporated on bases around the world. The service men and women that built and repaired the bases are those most in danger of developing asbestos related diseases but their families may also be at risk. Though these are not contagious diseases, it is highly likely that family and friends were exposed to asbestos fibers that traveled home with the workers clothes after work.

Exposure After the Military

Unfortunately, the exposure to asbestos for many soldiers didn’t stop when they finished serving their country. Many positions that servicemen were trained for while in the military also may have subjected them to the mineral once they were out. Industrial and construction workers, plumbers, electricians, and mechanics to name a few would have continued to be exposed long after they left the military. The effects of asbestos exposure depends the volume of fibers that accumulate in the body so a life of exposure raises the risks of mesothelioma and other asbestos related diseases.

VA Claims vs. Lawsuits

Veterans with asbestos-related diseases may qualify for VA benefits as mesothelioma and others illnesses are recognized as service oriented medical conditions. Depending on the severity of the disease a percentage of disability is given that designates the amount of monthly benefit that the veteran may qualify for. Mesothelioma is considered 100% disabling and may qualify a veteran for close to $3,000 per month and may increase depending on dependents in the family.

 Another option victims may have is through compensation from the companies that sold asbestos related products or materials to the military through government contracts. This may come through a settlement before or after a lawsuit is filed, or compensation may be awarded through the courts. For a claim against a company that negligently exposed military members to harmful asbestos fibers you will have to prove that you are in fact sick and that your exposure to the company’s product was significant enough to cause the illness. This can take some significant research into the medical and work history of the victim and it is recommended to consult with an attorney for assistance with this endeavor.