How Did Asbestos Cause Mesothelioma in Navy Veterans?

Sadly, diagnoses of mesothelioma in navy veterans make up a substantial portion of reported asbestos-linked cases in the U.S. each year. In fact, navy veterans comprise nearly a third of all mesothelioma patients at any given time. Perhaps the saddest aspect of these victims’ stories is that many survived active combat and even multiple tours of duty, only to be unknowingly attacked by a silent killer right here at home.

Asbestos on navy ships exposed countless naval services members to it carcinogenic properties, resulting in an epidemic of deadly proportions, years after the fact. Asbestos could be found in many different locations of a ship. Some of the most common were:

•Boiler rooms
•Engine rooms
•Navigation rooms
•Below-deck storage areas
•Sleeping quarters
•Mess halls

Asbestos was once regaled as a modern miracle by manufacturers and builders alike—a naturally fire- and heat-resistant material that was also markedly strong and able to withstand substantial wear and tear. It made for an ideal component in the construction of fireproof walls and doors, as well in insulation, aboard Navy vessels.

Understanding the link between mesothelioma and navy veterans first requires an understanding of how asbestos leads to illness in the first place.

When intact and undisturbed, asbestos materials present little to no risk. However, once broken apart, the microscopic fibers that compose asbestos are released and become airborne. When inhaled or swallowed by an unknowing bystander, the tiny crystals enter the linings of the lungs and abdominal cavity. While it is unlikely that minimal contact will cause significant damage, regular and repeated contact—such as in the case of occupational exposure—puts the individual at high risk for developing malignant mesothelioma and other types of cancer.

While mesothelioma in navy veterans can almost always be traced directly back to working onboard navy ships and in navy shipyards, the workers themselves were not the only ones who were placed at risk. Through a process called secondary exposure, the families and loved ones of veterans may have also come into contact with asbestos fibers that were carried from the jobsite on a worker’s skin, hair and clothes.

The navy veterans who are most at risk for developing mesothelioma and other related illnesses are those who worked on ships that were constructed prior to the 1980s, when asbestos use slowed significantly and was even eventually banned by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Generally speaking, the older a ship was, the higher the likelihood that dangerous exposure could occur. Though sturdy, asbestos is not immune to aging, and older asbestos structures are more likely to break apart and disintegrate.

Because mesothelioma has a long latency period—sometimes upwards of 40 years or more—diagnoses of mesothelioma in navy veterans are likely to continue cropping up for years to come. The good news, however, is that asbestos is all but extinct from navy shipyards today, with newer ships being constructed from safer, non-toxic materials.