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Asbestos Exposure In The Military

All branches of the military used asbestos containing materials throughout their barracks. Asbestos was a popular material for a variety of reasons. As a naturally occurring mineral it was readily available, and inexpensive. It has unique properties that make it both fireproof and heat resistant. These attributes made it an excellent choice for insulation. For decades the buildings that were constructed and the areas that soldiers lived and worked in were filled with asbestos fibers. Military vehicles and machinery used asbestos gaskets and brakeshoes; generators, boilers and turbines were both constructed and insulated with asbestos. The aircraft and aircraft carriers that served all branches of the military used cockpit heater systems and heatshields made of asbestos. Any soldier that served in the United States Army, Navy, Airforce or Marines from the early 1940s through the late 1970s may have been exposed to asbestos at some point in their military career.
Thumbnail image for NAVY SHIP 2.JPGThe branch of the military that suffered the highest levels of asbestos exposure was the Navy. Though the Navy has chosen not to assemble statistics in relation to how many naval veterans have suffered from asbestos-related diseases, other resources of statistical data indicate 26 percent of mesothelioma patients are Navy veterans and shipyard workers. In addition, naval veterans also account for 16 percent of asbestos-related lung cancer and 13 percent of severe respiratory diseases. According to the MESOTHELIOMA APPLIED RESEARCH FOUNDATION, INC. a remarkable 30% of all mesothelioma victims were exposed to asbestos on Naval ships and in shipyards. Based on statistics, working in an American Shipyard during the war years was almost as deadly as fighting in the war itself. The combat death rate was roughly 18 per thousand service members. For every thousand wartime shipyard employees, about 14 died of asbestos related cancer, and unknown numbers died of asbestosis or related complications.

In 1984, a medical survey of shipyard workers at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, VA, performed by Dr. Irving Selikoff , showed that 79% of these workers exhibited signs of lung abnormalities consisent with asbestos exposure, while X-rays given to 90 wives of workers revealed 8 to 9 percent showed similar abnormalities. The following informative video captures the key elements of his pioneering research.  

The most extensive use of asbestos was during World War II and the Korean Conflict, but it has been used for several decades during other wars as well. Soldiers were also exposed to asbestos during the Vietnam War. Virtually every ship commissioned by the United States Navy between 1930 and about 1970 contained several tons of asbestos insulation in the engine room, along the miles of pipe aboard ship and in the walls and doors that required fireproofing. The sailors that manned these ships and the men who repaired them in Navy shipyards were prime candidates for asbestos exposure.

The following trades were amongst the most commonly exposed personnel:

  • Boilermen
  • Boiler Tender
  • Enginemen
  • Engine Mechanic
  • Machinist Mates
  • Shipfitter (First Class Petty Officer, E6)
  • Pipefitters
  • Electrician’s Mates
  • Seabees (military construction)
  • Gunner/Seaman
  • Fireman (in engine room)
  • Fire Control Technician (Aviation & Gun Fire Control)
  • Hull Maintenance Technician
  • Instrument Man
  • Sonar Technician
  • Soundman
  • Utilitiesman
  • Water Tender

U.S. Government (Navy) shipyards where ships were built and/or overhauled include

  • Boston Naval Shipyard, Charlestown, MA
  • Charleston Naval Shipyard, Charleston, SC
  • Hunter’s Point Naval Shipyard, San Francisco, CA
  • Long Beach Naval Shipyard, Long Beach, CA
  • Mare Island Naval Shipyard, Vallejo, CA
  • New York Naval Shipyard, Brooklyn, NY
  • Norfolk Naval Shipyard, Portsmouth, VA
  • Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, Philadelphia, PA
  • Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Kittery, ME
  • Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Bremerton, WA

Additionally, there were a multitude of private sector shipyards where Navy ships, Liberty Ships and Victory ships were built. Asbestos; however, was not used in only military ships, but in planes and in conjunction with other military equipment that often reached high temperatures. Asbestos was considered the best insulator at the time.

What are your rights if you were in the military and exposed to Asbestos? The Feres Doctrine, a legal rule, prevents people who are injured as a result of military service from suing the federal government under the Federal Tort Claims Act. In any case, veterans cannot sue the government for damages incurred during service in the Armed Forces. Moreover, due to the complexity of the system, filing a claim to receive benefits from the VA is notoriously challenging. Eligibility for benefits for the VA’s medical program is defined by a classification system that categorizes veterans based upon a series of “priorities”, which can be perplexing to define and appear to be subjectively limiting. What remedy is available to the victims of asbestos exposure, however, is to seek compensation from the company that manufactured the asbestos products which caused eventual development of asbestosis, asbestos lung cancer or mesothelioma.

If you have been diagnosed with mesothelioma, you may have the right to recover damages against those manufacturers. Our experienced asbestos attorneys at Reyes, O’Shea & Coloca, P.A are dedicated to the fight for the rights of these individuals who were unknowingly exposed and put at risk. Each case is handled individually and given the attention and priority it deserves by our carefully trained legal team.

U.S. Supreme Court
FERES v. UNITED STATES, 340 U.S. 135 (1950)
Argued October 12, 1950.
Decided December 4, 1950.

The United States is not liable under the Federal Tort Claims Act for injuries to members of the armed forces sustained while on active duty and not on furlough and resulting from the negligence of others in the armed forces. Pp. 136-146.

(a) The Tort Claims Act should be construed to fit, so far as will comport with its words, into the entire statutory system of remedies against the Government to make a workable, consistent and equitable whole. P. 139.