Guest Post: Asbestos’ Role in American Industry, Warfare and Disease

A guest post:

Throughout World War I and II, as well as during other periods of significant growth in the United States, the mineral asbestos was widely used and regarded for its ability to withstand intolerable heat and flame. The U.S. military made great use of asbestos throughout the early and mid-20th Century, as it was a beneficial tool in building naval ships and creating supplies and additional products in American factories. As the years and decades passed, however, it was discovered through medical and scientific research that asbestos is incredibly dangerous.

Mesothelioma is a fatal form of cancer that exists most notably in three forms – pleural (lungs), pericardial (heart) and peritoneal (abdomen) – and the only known cause is asbestos. This disease has generally been a mystery, with reports as far back as Ancient Greece describing strange lung ailments and mesothelioma symptoms that were killing people. However, the past 30 years of medical science have given us a much better understanding of mesothelioma, but we still have progressed very little in early diagnosis and cessation.

More than 25 million living Americans have served in the United States Armed Forces at some point in their lifetimes, including the 2.6 million that are currently enlisted in active duty and the additional 1.6 million in reserves. It is believed that asbestos has been used in the construction and maintenance of approximately 1,046 naval ships, including aircraft carriers, battleships, cruisers, submarines, destroyers, tenders, tugs, auxiliary ships, tankers and oilers, among others. Additionally, more than 300 products that have been used considerably by the U.S. Armed Forces have been identified as containing asbestos.

Asbestos was most commonly used in insulating and fireproofing the ships, with the material notably located in boilers and underwater hatches, as well as the insulation for doors on the ships’ decks. Asbestos was essentially found in nearly every area of a ship that required human presence, which means that men and women in service were consistently exposed to the material. Older ships that experienced standard wear provided an even more dangerous environment for humans, as the breakdown of materials allowed the asbestos to become airborne. As approximately 65% of diagnosed mesothelioma cases are pleural, this was seemingly a common way for a person to become afflicted.

Currently, at least 3,000 new cases of mesothelioma are identified and reported each year, and that number is expected to keep rising well through the close of this decade. Mesothelioma carries a latency period of 20 to 50 years, which makes both diagnosis and prognosis difficult for physicians, as early symptoms like persistent coughing and chest pains can basically mirror those of a common cold. But this latency period also suggests that veterans of both World Wars, as well as the Korean and Vietnam wars, who fell ill late in their lives may have been victims of mesothelioma, too.

The latency period also suggests that the number of new mesothelioma cases will peak around 2020, as asbestos use was rampant through the 1960s and 70s, and enlisted service men and women were consistently exposed to many of these commissioned naval vessels into the 1980s. More than 75% of diagnosed cases of mesothelioma occur in men over the age of 55. While Mesothelioma Life Expectancy varies based on a variety of mitigating general health factors, it is generally less than 5 years.

While the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs recognizes mesothelioma as a service-related illness, veterans are not guaranteed benefits unless they can provide proof that the disease was contracted due to service-related exposure to asbestos or other harmful substances.