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Mesothelioma and the Navy

Of all of the military personnel who are most at risk for developing mesothelioma, Navy veterans are in the most danger. This is because the Navy relied on asbestos as an insulator and fire retardant in every ship built before 1980.

Any sailor serving onboard a ship going through a shipyard-availability period or in dry dock has been exposed to asbestos regardless of their Navy rating. And for many sailors, that exposure continues at sea. The most heavily exposed were those serving in an engineering billet. Asbestos is the most common cause of mesothelioma cancer.

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From the 1930s through the 1970s, nearly every Navy ship was built with several tons of asbestos. It was used in the engine rooms as fire protection along the miles of pipe lagging, gaskets and packing materials. It was also used in the bulkheads, overheads and floor tiles. Asbestos-related boiler and engine room parts were prominent throughout the engineering spaces, so Boilerman, Machinist Mates, Enginemen, and Electricians Mates were routinely exposed. Magazines were also insulated with asbestos and Gunners Mates wore protective clothing made from asbestos-containing felt. There was virtually no way to avoid exposure in some form while serving on a Navy ship. While only eight percent of the U.S. population are veterans, veterans make up an astounding 30 percent of all known mesothelioma deaths in this country.

Even though the Navy’s surgeon general knew about the problems as early as 1939, little was done to protect the service men and women and their families. This heat-, fire- and chemical-resistant mineral was seen as a cheap and efficient way to protect the ships and submarines during a time when the military needed the most protection. There was little thought to how it would injure veterans.

Asbestos Exposure

Long before the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) began implementing safety guidelines for asbestos and asbestos-containing products, Navy veterans were building and maintaining ships for the war efforts. They worked in shipyards where the ships and submarines were being constructed and ventilation was poor. They lived in base housing that contained asbestos floor and ceiling tiles. They drove in military vehicles that had asbestos clutches, gaskets and brakes.

Once those ships were out to sea, Navy veterans lived in tight quarters surrounded by asbestos-containing products and asbestos dust. It was not uncommon for sailors to sleep in berthing spaces with asbestos-lagged pipes, sometimes only inches from the sailor’s head above his rack. They had no choice but to breathe in the toxic asbestos fibers.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) recognizes that some Navy ratings have a particularly high risk for asbestos exposure. Ratings considered as high risk for asbestos exposure include the following:

  • Boilerman - (including Boiler Technician, Boiler Maker, and Water Tender)
  • Electricians Mate
  • Fireman
  • Gunners Mate
  • Hull Technician
  • Machinist Mate
  • Pipefitter/Shipfitter
  • Seabees
  • Utilitiesman

When the ships docked, the crew was no safer. Crewmembers did repairs without protective clothing or breathing masks. Instead, some wore asbestos-laden clothing. In the Navy yards, the hazards were no different. Family members and other civilians were at risk from secondary asbestos exposure.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that the Navy started phasing out asbestos use. Some of the products containing asbestos have been remediated, but much more remains. In the 1990s, many asbestos-containing Naval ships and submarines were sold for scrap to workers who weren’t properly trained to handle the asbestos. Scores of workers were exposed to asbestos.

Veteran Resources

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) recognizes mesothelioma as a service related injury. It is up to the veteran to prove exposure happened during active duty and that more exposure occurred in military service than in a civilian occupation. This is not always easy, especially if it’s been years since you’ve worked near asbestos.

If you have mesothelioma and would like help filing your claim, our patient advocates are always available to answer your questions. We specialize in helping Navy veterans file claims for mesothelioma. Our resources can also help you write your exposure summary for your VA Disability Compensation (VADC) claim. If you have already filed your VA claim and are concerned that the VA will deny it, we can also help. Our patient advocates will make sure you are making the strongest case possible that your mesothelioma is service-related.


Military.Com. Asbestos and the Military, History, Exposure & Assistance. Retrieved from http://www.military.com/benefits/veteran-benefits/asbestos-and-the-military-history-exposure-assistance.html

Moffitt Cancer Center. Risk Factors/Symptoms. Retrieved from http://moffitt.org/cancer-types--treatment/cancers-we-treat/mesothelioma/risk-factors--symptoms