Survivors Book

U.S. Navy Veterans - Mesothelioma Risks

Those who have served their country proudly, particularly in the years between World War II and the Vietnam War, may have an increased chance of contracting a particular kind of cancer called mesothelioma. The reason for this? Asbestos.

If you know anything at all about asbestos, you probably are aware of its toxicity. Yet for the majority of the twentieth century, asbestos was widely used in a variety of applications. Everything from ironing board covers to cigarette filters have contained the mineral substance. Its most common use was as insulation, due to its remarkable resistance to heat, fire and corrosion, as well as its ability to be woven into cloth or mixed with other materials, such as metal, plastics and concrete. Thousands of products once contained asbestos, and a number still do, despite its having been phased out beginning in the late 1970s.

On board Navy and civilian ships, where the risk of fire was high, asbestos was particularly useful - so useful, in fact, that the United States military actually mandated the use of asbestos for a period. Asbestos was used in boilers, pipes, steam systems, furnaces, electrical wiring, cables, adhesives and even the building materials that made up the ships' mess and sleeping quarters. Navy personnel, therefore, would have been exposed to asbestos during much of their military career.

Asbestos, although useful, is also deadly. It is composed of microscopic, often needlelike, fibers that can be inhaled or ingested. The fibers penetrate the lungs and the mesothelium - a special lining of the chest cavity - and develop into the rare cancer mesothelioma. A person can live with mesothelioma for years or even decades without even knowing they have it, since the disease is asymptomatic for an extended period of time. Even when symptoms do begin to manifest themselves, they may be so nonspecific and vague that the patient is often misdiagnosed or undiagnosed. By the time the doctor discovers the mesothelioma, it's usually too late to attempt surgery. At this point, chemotherapy and radiation may be administered to relieve pain and improve breathing. Another procedure, thoracentesis, may also help achieve these goals by removing excess pleural fluid from the space around the lungs. Currently, there is no cure for mesothelioma.

Although asbestos use has been phased out, the material remains in many, many locations, both on shore and at sea. Even current Navy personnel, or veterans who have served since the Vietnam War, may be at risk, especially if they participated in the repair, overhaul or decommissioning of a ship, which would have caused them to come into close proximity with the friable asbestos material, can be at risk for developing mesothelioma.

Some of the symptoms of mesothelioma include persistent or bloody cough, wheezing or hoarseness, fatigue, breathing difficulties, including shortness of breath or shallow breath, and chest pain. These symptoms can often be mistaken for the symptoms of other conditions, such as pneumonia, emphysema, bronchitis, asthma, or even simply the common cold or aging. That's why it's important to let your doctor know that you may have been exposed to asbestos during your time of service in the Navy, so that you both can carefully screen your health for signs of this devastating cancer.


Workers at Risk for Asbestos Exposure

Below are a list of occupations and trades that were at risk for asbestos exposure:

Last Edited: Sun July 26, 2020