Navy veterans and mesothelioma have a long and unfortunate history together, one that most veterans are unaware of until this aggressive form of cancer strikes them or a former comrade-in-arms. Mesothelioma is a cancer caused by asbestos, a heat-proof, insulating material that was broadly used by the US military up until the Vietnam war. When it first began to see industrial use in the early part of the 20th century, asbestos was believed to be completely safe. Because of its ability to withstand massive amounts of heat and not catch fire, asbestos was quickly picked up for use by all branches of the US military. No part of the military used asbestos so much as the Navy, which found it to be the perfect solution for insulating ships of all kinds - aircraft carriers, gunships and transport vessels, to name a few. Asbestos was widely used in these vessels in order to both insulate the materials on board and limit the chance of fire in case of a malfunction or attack, and Navy personnel were exposed to asbestos on a daily basis while onboard. Asbestos is easily breakable, and once broken, the light, thin fibers of its structure were free to be inhaled by veterans. In 1939, the surgeon general of the Navy discussed some of the potential hazards of asbestos that had already be reported as a result of exposure at the New York Navy Yard, but his concerns were ignored, and thousands of veterans were continually exposed to asbestos fibers, leading to an eventual presentation of conditions like asbestosis, asbestos-related lung cancer and mesothelioma. Now, the VA offers some help for Navy veterans who have been affected by mesothelioma, but unfortunately, the risk to those serving has not been eliminated, even today.
Originally, asbestos was installed in all parts of a Navy ship - from the boiler and engine rooms to the walls and flooring - anywhere that insulation would be useful, asbestos was found. At Navy shipyards in states across the US, dock workers and Navy personnel stationed there to oversee operations were exposed to airborne asbestos fibers on a daily basis, filling their lungs with the tiny fibers, some of which became stuck. Once an asbestos fiber lodges itself in the membranous lining of the heart, lungs or abdomen, it cannot be removed and has the potential to develop into aggressive and malignant mesothelioma. Veterans on-board Navy ships and working in shipyards were constantly exposed to a cancer-causing agent with no safety precautions taken. By the middle of the 20th century, the Navy had begun to realize that asbestos posed a problem, and began to phase out its use on ships. Many of the ships containing asbestos were still in service, however, and remained so for decades after asbestos was no longer used. Repairing these ships and even removing the asbestos from them put workers and veterans at risk, and parts of the ships were often sold off or used in other Navy applications, leading again to asbestos exposure. Recently, a set of Navy barracks in Oregon were discovered to pose an environmental hazard by the EPA when it was discovered that the barracks had contained asbestos and that it had not been properly handled when the original buildings were destroyed, leading to a contamination of the entire site. Because of the large number of ways in which Navy veterans could have been exposed to mesothelioma, they make up the bulk of the new cases of this cancer that are diagnosed each year.
When it comes to dealing with the concern of Navy Veterans and mesothelioma, one of the best resources that Navy personnel affected can turn to is the Department of Veterans Affairs and their robust healthcare program. While the VA does not consider mesothelioma to be a "service-connected" condition, it is still possible to receive basic benefits from the VA for the disease, and also for a veteran to choose the VA treatment center they prefer - and there are a number of notable mesothelioma facilities in the VA system, including those in Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Boston. The VA has significantly improved its standard of care over the last 20 years and now offers robust treatment options for veterans with mesothelioma who qualify for the benefit program.
If you'd like to learn more about the Navy and mesothelioma, as well as what kind of treatment and coverage options are available, fill out our form below for a free information packet.