The evidence of asbestos exposure among World War II and Korea veterans has, after thirty years, become so overwhelming that even the VA has recognized it. After years of denial the military bureaucracy finally recognized the fact that veterans – Navy veterans in particular – were dying by the thousands from asbestos cancer and asbestosis. Mesothelioma is a lethal form of cancer for which the only known cause is asbestos fibers which were inhaled or ingested by thousands of veterans exposed to asbestos insulation and other products on ships and in shipyards where Navy vessels were repaired and refitted.
Asbestos Exposure for Cold War Veterans
GIs encountered asbestos in motor pools and in facilities fitted out with such construction products as asbestos roofing, flooring, floor tiles, wall insulation, wallboard and joint compound, and cement. The Navy gradually cleaned up its vessels and stopped insulating with asbestos after about 1970. But Cold War veterans stationed in U.S. facilities here and overseas were using buildings that were constructed during World War II or Korea, many of which are still in use today. In the 1990s most of these buildings were cleared of asbestos materials but that did nothing for soldiers posted to these facilities during the Cold War era or for vets who were posted to Vietnam-era bases that had asbestos insulation or other products.
Because the Cold War included both combat and non-combat eras, military expenditures on domestic facilities was spotty and old buildings were used without modernization. Unfortunately that meant that a lot of asbestos materials, now deteriorating from age, were left in place. Asbestos materials tend to deteriorate over time; when an asbestos shingle or floor tile or ceiling tile or pipe insulation begins to deteriorate it becomes "friable," which means that it crumbles easily. When that happens asbestos fibers are released into the air, to be inhaled by any passing individual.
Think about the crumbling linoleum or broken wallboard you observed in the facilities where you were stationed. Or the black shingles that blew off barracks buildings, the old insulation in shops and the tired blankets wrapped around pipes and boilers in building service areas. During the Cold War it is very likely that all of those structural components contained asbestos. It took the military many years to systematically remove asbestos materials from all of the bases here and abroad; in some of the closed facilities it has never been done.
Asbestos Disease Today
One of the insidious aspects of asbestos related disease is the fact that it has extraordinarily long periods of latency. Mesothelioma takes an average of forty years to develop after the asbestos exposure has occurred. That means the Cold War veterans who are currently retired may just now be getting sick. Asbestosis may take twenty years or more to develop; it is a much more dangerous threat for veterans who smoke or who were smokers for a period earlier in their lives.
It is also worth noting that asbestos is at the center of the most expensive collection of civil lawsuits in American history. Something like 800,000 personal injury and wrongful death suits have been filed over asbestos exposure, many of them by various generations of veterans. If you have developed an asbestos disease, consult your physician, the VA, and find out how a mesothelioma attorney can help you.
Bob Hartzell is a freelance writer for AsbestosNews.com, an informational resource on asbestos exposure and asbestos related diseases such as mesothelioma cancer, asbestosis, and other respiratory health conditions.