Asbestos is a mineral that has been used for centuries as an insulator because of its resistance to heat and flame. It breaks easily into fibers and dust that float on the air and are easily inhaled. When asbestos gets into the lungs it causes scarring and other medical issues that can ultimately lead to asbestosis, lung cancer, or mesothelioma.
About 1/3 of the people in the United States who have been diagnosed with mesothelioma were exposed while they were in the Navy. Since mesothelioma takes between 20 to 30 years to manifest, veterans who were exposed many years ago are only in the past few years being diagnosed with asbestos related injuries. In addition to the men onboard the ships, Navy personnel in shipyards also faced high levels of asbestos exposure as part of their duties. Also, family members who come in contact with the Navy personnel’s asbestos contaminated clothing may get secondary exposure that can cause the same diseases as primary exposure.
For many years Navy ships used asbestos as insulation, especially around boilers, pipes and other heat sensitive areas. Although much of the asbestos has been removed, some Navy ships continue to have asbestos on board. Any time the asbestos is disturbed, it can become airborne and be inhaled by any seamen in the vicinity. Older vessels in particular create a hazard when workers clean or repair areas near gaskets or other locations where asbestos insulation was used.
One advantage people have who were exposed to asbestos during military service over people who were exposed in non-service jobs, is that starting in 1980 the United States military formed a database called the Asbestos Medical Surveillance Program (AMSP) listing people who had been exposed to asbestos. Personnel who were identified got physical examinations and monitoring for asbestos related diseases. Unfortunately, since most asbestos related diseases take 20 years or more to show up, when the AMSP ceased to exist in 1999, many potential victims of asbestos disease hadn’t developed the disease at the time monitoring stopped. Not all of these individuals have continued to monitor their lung health, and may have undetected asbestos disease, or disease that is too far advanced before detection to be surgically removed. Furthermore, asbestos defense attorneys have techniques for removing claims made by Navy personnel from state courts to the federal court system. This change in venue causes significant delays in processing the claim, and in some cases prevents the claim from being heard at all. In some states, if the exposed person dies before trial, the compensation is significantly reduced, because surviving family members cannot collect for pain and suffering.
The most serious of the asbestos diseases is malignant mesothelioma, a cancer of the pleura that lines the chest cavity and the lungs in it’s most common form, pleural mesothelioma, and other organs in more rare instances. Most people diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma die within one year of the diagnosis. Malignant mesothelioma is not curable, but can be stopped with surgery if it is detected before the cancer spreads. Since in the early stages of mesothelioma few symptoms show up, most people don’t realize they have a medical problem. Even when symptoms do start to display themselves, they are the kind of problems, like coughing or shortness of breath that can be caused by so many different things that they aren’t usually taken seriously. If the asbestos cancer has already spread, and surgery cannot remove all the cancer, chemotherapy and radiation can only slow down the progression of the disease. They are also used to treat symptoms of mesothelioma including shortness of breath due to tumors, and pain.