By Cristina Johnson
November 18, 2023 (San Diego) -- The U.S. armed forces employed asbestos-containing products throughout much of the 20th century. All five military branches used frequently contaminated products and as a consequence, many service members were exposed to asbestos while defending our nation. Today, as these brave men and women transition into civilian life after their service, they risk developing life-altering diseases that may be linked to their military years. Asbestos exposure remains a compelling concern for all veterans but remains a critical issue among those who served in the Navy.
Once praised for its fire-resistant and insulating properties, asbestos was widely used in naval construction during the last century. It was in every compartment on naval ships, and nobody thought about asbestos being a potent threat when its microscopic fibers were released into the air and inhaled.
The hidden harm that slowly undermines many veterans’ health condition
Over the years of duty, veterans serving on naval bases and ships were near materials containing asbestos, often unaware of the danger they represented. Because the toxic material was abundantly present on military property like aircraft, engine rooms, sleeping barracks and mess halls, former service members were at a high risk of asbestos exposure.
Due to the size and structure of its fibers, asbestos may float in the air for hours. The microscopic threads are easily inhaled or ingested, and once in the body, they cause irreversible damage to major organs and lead to devastating asbestos-related diseases.
One of the most vicious aspects of these diseases is the long latency period between exposure and the appearance of symptoms. Veterans may not have experienced health issues during their service; for many, the effects of asbestos exposure only became evident decades later when they were diagnosed with illnesses related to their exposure, like mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis, or other respiratory diseases.
The battle for health and well-being
Although many years have passed since asbestos was widely used by the Navy and the other armed services, veterans who came in contact with asbestos during their duty now face a battle for their health. Many must confront the harsh reality that their service to the country came with a tremendous personal sacrifice and that besides affecting them physically and psychologically, their asbestos conditions shorten their lifespan and steal valuable time from their families.
It is why all veterans must be aware of asbestos exposure during their duty and take steps to protect their health proactively:
Regular health check-ups: Making periodic medical examinations and talking to the doctor about military service and probable asbestos exposure is crucial. Early disease detection enhances treatment results and significantly prolongs lifespan. Lungs are primarily damaged by inhaled asbestos fibers. Therefore, veterans should request periodic chest X-rays and pulmonary function tests (also known as the breathing test), as these show any changes caused by the asbestos particles and are a reliable diagnostic procedure for malignant and benign asbestos-related illnesses.
Asbestos diseases are complex and thus misdiagnosed most of the time because they produce symptoms like common respiratory conditions. Sometimes, asking for a second doctor's opinion may be a game changer in receiving an exact diagnosis. Veterans with Medicare or Medicaid should also go outside the VA and ask for a pulmonary specialist's evaluation. Private insurance may provide extra coverage for medical needs so that veterans may have coverage for various specialty consultations. There are cases of asbestos-related diseases in advanced stages where Navy vets received an exact diagnosis after a separate consultation with a pulmonologist.
Know your rights: Veterans who know they’ve been exposed to asbestos, or those who think they may have worked around asbestos during their duty, should know their rights and options. Legal avenues and compensation programs are available to assist those injured by asbestos exposure.
As a veteran, you have the legal right to seek compensation from asbestos trust funds and apply for VA disability benefits. Asbestos trust funds are a significant source of monetary compensation for individuals affected by occupational exposure, including former Navy personnel. These funds were set up by liable companies that entered bankruptcy protection and have approximately $37 billion currently available for future claimants. Navy veterans harmed by asbestos exposure during duty can file a claim for indemnification with both asbestos trust funds and Veterans Affairs.
It's essential to know that the amount received from asbestos trust funds will not affect your VA disability claim. Financial-wise, the VA's only concern is to avoid veterans claiming compensation multiple times for the same disease. For that reason, veterans can be sure that the sum received from asbestos trust funds will not affect the VA's decision about their disability claim. Even though trusts grant most money for mesothelioma ($300,000-$400,000), other asbestos-related diseases can still receive substantial compensation.
As a plus, Navy veterans who file claims with asbestos trust funds first and get approved will have thoroughly evaluated documentation at their hands, which will speed up their VA claim approval process. The same trust funds may recompense those exposed secondhand. Veterans' family members may be reimbursed if their health is affected by their indirect encounter with the toxic asbestos fibers.
Promote awareness: Brotherhood and protecting the other is one of the lessons in the army; veterans can play a massive role in raising awareness and educating by sharing experiences with their communities and fellow servicemen and women about asbestos exposure risks. By doing so, they can help make sure that others who served the country are informed.
Honoring service and ensuring well-being
In our expressions of gratitude to veterans, let us also recognize our responsibility to protect their health and well-being. Awareness of asbestos exposure is an integral part of this responsibility. By shedding light on this concealed danger, we can ensure that those who have served receive the care and support they rightly deserve.
Cristina Johnson is a Navy veteran advocate for Asbestos Ships Organization, a nonprofit whose primary mission is to raise awareness and educate veterans about the dangers of asbestos exposure on Navy ships and assist them in navigating the VA claims process. For more information, please visit this page.