Veterans of the U.S. armed forces who served between 1940 and 1970 are at risk of developing asbestos-related illnesses due to a high rate of asbestos exposure. U.S. Navy personnel and workers employed in U.S. shipyards during World War II have the highest risk of developing lung ailments because asbestos was frequently used in the construction of navy ships. Many of these men worked in the ships’ boilers rooms and engine rooms – tight-fit, poorly ventilated areas – where asbestos fibers floated freely and were inhaled.
People who lived at or worked on military bases, or were closely associated with base employees, during that time are also susceptible. There have been many cases of veterans’ family members becoming sick through second-hand exposure. Secondary exposure is especially troubling for wives who might have washed their husbands’ work clothes that had fibers stuck to them.
Sadly, many asbestos-related lung ailments could have been prevented. Asbestos was known to be a harmful material as early as the 1920s, yet the military took no precautionary measures. Soldiers and workers were unaware of the dangers because their superiors did not inform them. Long-term effects of asbestos exposure typically do not appear for 30 to 40 or more years after exposure. The long latency period is a major reason that many veterans have become sick in just the past few decades. Now many of them are developing lung ailments or have died from them.
Asbestos-related illnesses include asbestosis and two principal types of asbestos cancer: lung cancer and mesothelioma. These diseases often share similar symptoms of a breathing disorder like asthma, pneumonia or even a common cold. Sometimes patients are treated mistakenly for a different disorder while their warning signs mask a more serious problem.
Unlike a cold or asthma, however, these lung problems are not curable, nor do they progress quickly at the onset. They instead incubate or slowly arise over many months or years, steadily becoming more severe over time.
Asbestosis is a chronic, seldom-fatal but debilitating lung disease that causes scarring of the lungs. Asbestos fibers create plaque build-up that restricts the lungs’ ability to sufficiently expand and contract.
Mesothelioma, on the other hand, is a usually-fatal asbestos cancer that affects the mesothelium lining surrounding the lungs or abdomen. Pleural mesothelioma, which affects the lungs, accounts for a vast majority of mesothelioma cases, while peritoneal mesotheliom affects the abdomen and accounts for only 10 to 20 percent, and paricardial mesothelioma affects the heart and is extremely rare.
Asbestosis is much more common than lung cancer or mesothelioma. However, studies show that 1 in 7 people who have asbestosis eventually develop lung cancer. Symptoms of asbestosis include coughing, chest pain, decreased tolerance for physical exertion and shortness of breath. The symptoms’ severity is often related to the amount and length of asbestos-exposure; symptoms are sometimes nonexistent or minor enough that the person hardly notices.
Even though there is no cure, asbestosis can be managed with prescribed supplemental oxygen and respiratory physiotherapy that removes lung secretions of the affected areas. Lung transplantation is also an avenue for treatment in the most severe cases of asbestosis.
Lung cancer shares most of the same symptoms of asbestosis. In addition to chest pain, fatigue and shortness of breath, a person experiencing symptoms of lung cancer may suffer from a “smoker’s cough” that worsens or increasing hoarseness. Furthermore, one may cough up blood or have repeated bouts of bronchitis or pneumonia. Years of smoking also compound and accelerate these symptoms. The most common form of asbestos lung cancer is small cell carcinoma.
Unlike asbestosis and lung cancer, research has shown that mesothelioma can result from as few as 1 to 3 months of asbestos exposure. Mesothelioma is a difficult cancer to diagnose because its symptoms are similar to those of many other ailments. In most instances, by the time a mesothelioma diagnosis is reached, it is too late for patients. In addition, since the disease is so rare – only about 3,000 new mesothelioma cases are diagnosed each year in the United States – many doctors are unfamiliar with the disease and treat the symptoms as a different disorder.
The most common mesothelioma symptoms include chest pain, abnormal weight loss, persistent fever, night sweats and general malaise. In some instances, a CT scan will reveal pleural effusion, or fluid buildup surrounding one or both lungs. Peritoneal mesothelioma symptoms include abdominal pain or swelling, ascites – abnormal fluid build-up in the abdomen – and weight loss. In some instances, patients show no signs of the disease when diagnosed.
While there isn’t a universal standard used by doctors to diagnose asbestos-related illnesses, people who have knowingly been exposed to asbestos – such as military veterans and workers – can monitor their health by telling their doctor that they’ve been exposed to asbestos. Their doctor can then take a proactive approach by conducting annual CT scans and aggressively pursuing the symptoms if or when they arise.
‘Veterans and Asbestos Exposure’ Resources:
1. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, MayoClinic.com “Asbestosis”
2. National Cancer Institute, Cancer.gov, “Asbestos Exposure: Questions and Answers”
3. National Cancer Institute, Cancer.gov, “Mesothelioma: Questions and Answers”
4. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, MayoClinic.com “Mesothelioma”
5. American Cancer Society, Inc., Cancer.org, “Asbestos”
6. Veterans Resources, VeteransResources.org, “Mesothelioma and Veterans”, http://www.veteransresources.org/news-articles/mesothelioma-and-veterans-070717.html