Asbestos exposure risk can linger for decades

Alaska Veterans Report

Let me begin by thanking the readers who contacted the Senior Voice concerning last month’s article. I hope our senior veterans will find this month’s topic on mesothelioma in the 60-plus year old age group useful to themselves or a loved one. If you worked in areas of high exposure while on active duty for even one day, that brief exposure could lead to this deadly form of cancer in you and your family (via secondary exposure).

This discussion will be in two parts. I will cover the disease, its causes, areas of service in the military most vulnerable, VA benefits and class action claims information.

Most of the research for this article is from the Veteran’s Administration’s website, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). I encourage anyone interested in knowing more about this subject to go to these sites because I can only cover the major topics. The Anchorage area VA public affairs officer, Sam Hudson, was also very helpful.

What is Mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is a cancer found in the lining surrounding the lungs, the stomach, or the heart. This cancer takes its name from the name that is given to this lining - the mesothelium. The pleura is the name for the mesothelial tissue surrounding the lungs and lining the chest cavity. If the cancer is in this lining, it is called “pleural mesothelioma” and is the most common type of mesothelioma.

Symptoms include trouble breathing, pain under the rib cage, pain, swelling or lumps in the abdomen, and weight loss for no known reason. Smoking cigarettes greatly increases the risk of getting asbestos lung cancer. Even if you did not smoke cigarettes, but were only exposed to asbestos, mesothelioma can still develop.

Often it is difficult to determine the difference between lung cancer and malignant mesothelioma. Your doctor will use a biopsy and imaging tests to make a proper diagnosis. Malignant mesothelioma is often found when it is advanced, which makes it harder to treat. Treatment may include some combination of radiation, surgery and/or chemotherapy.

Asbestos exposure is the main cause of mesothelioma and asbestos was used widely in the U.S. military during both peacetime and wartime, mainly from the 1930s to the 1970s when the dangers of asbestos were not as known as they are now. Asbestos was used in all military areas, with the highest concentration occurring on navy ships. Asbestos was cost effective and considered an excellent insulator and it greatly reduced the probability of fires occurring on navy ships.

During its initial use, the deadly effects were not widely known and military personnel were exposed to asbestos on a daily basis, night and day. Engine and boiler rooms on ships held the most asbestos, but even the mess deck and sleeping quarters contained asbestos.

At times, individuals were exposed to asbestos so extensively they could actually see the asbestos fibers flying off of their clothing when they shook them out at the end of the day. However, personnel were also exposed without being able to see or smell the fibers. Essentially, they had no idea they were being exposed to something that would come back to haunt them decades later.

Below are some answers to the questions you may have about asbestos exposure in the military and what types of products contain asbestos.

The most extensive use of asbestos was during World War II and the Korean Conflict, but it has been used for several decades during other wars as well. Soldiers were exposed to asbestos during the Vietnam War, in addition to their exposure to Agent Orange. It typically takes 30 years or more for symptoms to develop after asbestos exposure.

The engine and boiler rooms, damage control and pump rooms are where military personnel had the highest risk of being exposed to asbestos on navy ships. The ward room, powder and shot hoist, powder and shot magazine and turrets 1, 2 and 3 were a medium risk for exposure. The Junior Officer quarters, anchor windlass room, pilot house, Captain’s sea cabin, mess deck, Admiral’s Cabin and the Battery Directors were at low risk for asbestos exposure.

If you were assigned to duty in one or more of the areas mentioned above, you may have been exposed to levels lethal enough to cause this cancer 30 to 40 years later. Instruments, meters, coatings, packing assemblies, hydraulic assemblies, flooring, cement, products, roof shingles, brake linings and textiles are just a small number of the end items and products that could have planted the seed of cancer you may now have.

This is the end of part one. Next month we will conclude the discussion with your options as a veteran. I hope this was informative and until next month, best wishes and good health.

Mike Dryden is a retired Army Major and current board member of Older Persons Action Group.

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