The history of military asbestos use extends from World War II until the 1970s, when it was finally exposed as a lethal material. Most at risk were those who served aboard military seafaring vessels, which contained numerous sources of the material due to its high resistance to fire, electricity and corrosion. Therefore, those in the Navy, Coast Guard and Marines suffered the greatest chance of asbestos exposure and subsequent disease, though all military branches during this period used asbestos-containing materials.
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Besides its frequent use on ships and submarines, several thousand tons of this material was used in other military products. These include other forms of transportation, like planes and tanks, military housing and other forms of insulation. Altogether, the various branches of the military had hundreds of types of equipment and product that incorporated asbestos, making it a risk that anyone who served in the armed forces during this period may have suffered some degree of exposure.
Despite a 1939 report detailing the dangers of asbestos, the military continued to utilize the material for another 40 years. That 1939 Navy Surgeon General report, which detailed health conditions at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, showed how areas such as pipe covers and insulators allowed worker exposure to asbestos dust. Unmoved by the report, the military continued the use of asbestos in a variety of purposes for around 40 years more.
In addition to a person’s branch of service, their particular set of job duties also played a part in their chances of asbestos exposure and later disease development. While all those who served on military vessels during this period faced a chance of asbestos exposure, those who worked in the boiler and engine rooms faced an even higher risk of developing an asbestos related disease. Working in confined quarters in these areas of the ship with the highest concentration of asbestos materials greatly increased the chance that these individuals would suffer asbestos exposure.
A military law called the Feres Doctrine effectively prohibits armed service members from collecting personal injury damages from the federal government. However, veterans are able to apply for Veterans Affairs benefits relating to this asbestos exposure. To receive this medical compensation, veterans must prove their asbestos exposure took place during their military service. If this cannot be proven, veterans cannot collect VA medical benefits. In this event, veterans are left to seek compensation from the companies that manufactured the products they believed caused their illness.