Hundreds of thousands of Navy personnel volunteered to serve their country throughout the 20th Century, and put their lives on the line in some of the most dangerous conflicts the world stage has witnessed. In return, they have received many benefits and the chance to attend college on the G.I. Bill, gratitude and recognition from their fellow countrymen, and VA benefits, just to name a few. However, they may also have been put at risk for a peculiar variety of cancer known as mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma affects the membrane that encases and protects the lungs and other organs, known as the mesothelium. It is most often caused by exposure to asbestos, which was widely used in the United States Navy and other military branches, which is why veterans are among the occupational populations that have a higher risk of developing this disease.
Asbestos was prized in both the armed forces and civilian industries for its fireproof nature and ability to withstand high temperatures. Because it is also impervious to corrosion from salt water, as well as lightweight, flexible and durable, asbestos was the ideal material to use as insulation in many capacities aboard ships. It was woven into protective cloth, used for insulation, and mixed with concrete and plastics in order to lend those substances its remarkable properties. In fact, World War II-era shipbuilding used over 300 different asbestos-containing products.
Asbestos was considered so useful that the Navy issued specifications in 1939, mandating its use in new naval vessels. Boiler rooms, engine rooms, sleeping quarters, mess halls and virtually every other area aboard ship were likely to have been contaminated with this toxic material, and since many of these locations were cramped and poorly ventilated, the risk of breathing in the microscopic asbestos fibers would have been much greater than in buildings on land.
These asbestos fibers are what can lead to mesothelioma, because they are inhaled and then penetrate the mesothelium, where they can cause irrevocable damage on a cellular level. The mesothelioma begins to develop, silently yet aggressively, but may not show symptoms until decades after the asbestos exposure took place. By the time the disease is recognized, it is often already at a later stage, leaving patients with few treatment options and a very short life expectancy. Few mesothelioma patients live longer than two years past diagnosis.
Some estimates put the number of mesothelioma patients who are retired sailors or shipyard workers at 26 percent, a figure which includes some notable Navy personnel, including former Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr. Any Navy or Army veteran who may have worked in an asbestos-contaminated environment during his or her service should consult with a physician in order to assess the risk of having contracted mesothelioma.