Veterans and Lung Cancer

In the United States more people die of lung cancer than breast, colon, kidney and prostate cancers combined. Many people may think of lung cancer as a smoker’s disease, a self-inflicted illness caused by years of a bad habit. That isn’t entirely the case, however, because many nonsmokers and at-risk groups are highly prone to developing the disease. Among those at-risk groups are U.S. veterans who served between World War II and the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Recent studies show that veterans are 25 to 75 percent more likely to develop some form of lung cancer than people who did not serve in the military. The reason for that is simple: many veterans were exposed to asbestos, Agent Orange, depleted uranium (DU) and an assortment of other radioactive materials during their military service.

Veterans groups at especially high risk are those who served in the Navy during World War II and troops of all armed forces who served during the Vietnam conflict. In the 1940s, asbestos was extensively used in the construction of naval ships. Few areas of pre-1970s naval ships were safe—asbestos contamination was present in engine rooms, boiler rooms, mess halls, and sleeping quarters Asbestos was everywhere. People aboard these ships inhaled the fibers, and exposed their families to secondhand asbestos by carrying it home on their clothes. Over the past 25 years, many Navy veterans have died from asbestos-related lung cancer or mesothelioma, an incurable asbestos cancer. Given the long latency period of these cancers, some veterans have only recently developed these illnesses.

Although these men were only exposed to asbestos while in the military, it has been difficult for them to attain Veterans Affairs benefits because the VA does not currently recognize asbestos lung cancer or malignant mesothelioma as service-connected illnesses. Vietnam veterans are also susceptible to lung cancer, but for a different reason: exposure to Agent Orange. Between 1965 and 1971, over 100 million pounds of Agent Orange were used in Vietnam. The herbicide was widely used to clear brush and destroy plant life in order to remove the enemy’s cover. Agent Orange is very harmful to humans and has been proven to cause a variety of diseases, ailments and serious medical conditions, including lung cancer.

Many of the nearly 2.6 million troops serving in Vietnam were exposed to Agent Orange. Some expressed concern about their long-term health following their tour of duty. However, since there tends to be a latency period before the effects develop, much like asbestos cancer, many veterans are just now beginning to develop symptoms. As a result, all instances of lung cancer in Vietnam vets are considered a service-related illness, and the VA provides disability compensation to those diagnosed with lung cancer presumptive of Agent Orange.

More recently, Gulf War veterans have also expressed concern about the possibility of developing lung cancer. Many veterans were exposed to pollution from more than 600 oil well fires in Iraq and Kuwait, depleted uranium (DU), and a number of other potentially deadly chemical and environmental agents. Some veterans of this recent conflict are already experiencing health problems. A big concern for Gulf War veterans is the exposure to the thousands of depleted uranium munitions used during the war. DU is a type of uranium whose residue remains after the highly radioactive uranium is extracted, after being fired from missiles and other munitions.

Troops were exposed to DU by coming into contact with it on tanks and vehicles, or by coming into contact with vehicles or bunkers that were hit by DU munitions. DU is especially dangerous because its residue does not settle but instead floats in the air and infiltrates water sources such as rivers, oceans and lakes. It has also been linked to causing bone and kidney ailments, and lung cancer. In fact, studies estimate that tumors can form in the lung as soon as two to five years after inhalation, although they may not be diagnosed until several years later.