Asbestos exposure may be an issue for veterans even today


BEFORE THE DANGERS OF ASBESTOS were widely known, more than 300 asbestos products were in use on U.S. Navy ships from the 1930s to the early 1980s. This decision to heavily use asbestos placed veterans at risk for mesothelioma and other serious respiratory illnesses.

Asbestos use was prevalent in the U.S. armed forces during the last century, particularly during WWII, when the war effort demanded materials at accessible prices for producing military equipment quickly and in large quantities.

Asbestos flooded the markets, and manufacturers wanted to profit the most from its utility and low cost. It led to ignoring the health risks of mixing asbestos in products made for military property like aircraft, vehicles, ships, engine rooms, sleeping barracks, and mess halls.

As a consequence, military personnel were at risk of asbestos exposure, unbeknownst to them, whenever serving on land, sea, or air.

The growing number of toxic exposure cases among veterans today shows the many unseen health risks they faced during service, including asbestos exposure. Having toxic asbestos fibers in their system may endanger many veterans’ health now as they are at a stage of life where keeping healthy becomes challenging, including those among St. Louis City’s veteran population.

The Navy exploited asbestos the most out of the five armed forces branches, putting Navy personnel onboard naval vessels built before the 1980s  at an extremely high risk of asbestos exposure. However, this fact doesn’t exempt other military bases from being a potential source of asbestos contamination. It is why asbestos exposure is still a health problem for all former service members who might have toxic asbestos particles in their lungs, including those of the veteran community in Missouri and Illinois.

Missouri’s WWII history highlights include Harry S. Truman becoming the first Missourian to be president of the United States, around 450,000 Missourians fighting on nearly every front of the war, and women serving in the Navy WAVES and the Women’s Army Corps.

St. Louis was also heavily involved in the war effort of World War II, with the city’s industry becoming aviation-oriented during wartime. From 1925 to 1958, Lambert Field hosted the Naval Air Station St. Louis as a reserve base and recruitment facility. It became an active Naval Airbase, training many pilots during WWII.

Missouri is home to Whiteman Air Force Base, known as Sedalia Army Air Field during wartime, a critical operational location for the C-46 and C-47 transport planes. Illinois hosts Scott Air Force Base, which has a WWII tradition as the headquarters unit of the Scott Field Branch of the Army Air Corps Technical Schools and the Radio School.

Veterans worked and lived near asbestos materials during service, unaware of the danger they posed. This is why a considerable number of former service members developed asbestos-related diseases decades later. Due to their structure and size, asbestos fibers can remain in the air for hours. The mineral’s threads are microscopic and easy to inhale or ingest. It makes asbestos dust one of the most toxic substances humans have ever encountered. Once inside the body, these tiny sharp fibers cause permanent damage, primarily to the lungs, and lead to devastating diseases.

One of the most horrible aspects of asbestos-related diseases is the decades-long latency period between initial exposure and the first symptoms. Even if veterans had no health issues during their service, they experience the effects of asbestos exposure when they are diagnosed with mesothelioma, asbestosis, lung cancer or other severe respiratory diseases related to their exposure.

Even if decades have passed since the armed forces applied asbestos, thousands of veterans who were in contact with it, especially those of the Second World War, Korean, and Vietnam War, now have to fight for their health. Many of them must come to terms with the fact that their asbestos disease will shorten their life, as no treatment can reverse the damage done by asbestos. Existing medical procedures can only slow the progression, relieving symptoms and preventing complications.

Missouri ranks 20th in the U.S. for asbestos-related deaths, so veterans should seek medical attention as soon as possible.

Timely detection is crucial with asbestos-related diseases because it considerably improves treatment results and prolongs life expectancy. That is why vets should proactively protect their health through regular check-ups, learn their legal rights, and promote awareness.

Undergoing periodic health check-ups and, while there, openly speaking about military service and possible asbestos exposure are all essential steps. Inhaled asbestos particles injure the lungs first, so veterans should ask for chest X-rays or CT scans and pulmonary function (breathing) tests. These noninvasive tests reveal damages caused by the asbestos fibers and are reliable in diagnosing benign and malignant asbestos illnesses.

Veterans who know they’ve worked in an environment contaminated with asbestos or those who suspect they’ve been exposed to it while in the military should know their rights and options. Legal avenues and compensation programs are available to help former service members through asbestos trust funds and Veterans Affairs.

Veterans can play a central role in raising awareness of asbestos exposure by sharing their knowledge about its dangers. By being open about their experiences, they can ensure that others who protected our country are informed.

Besides expressing our gratitude to veterans for their service, we also have a responsibility to help protect their well-being. Bringing awareness of asbestos exposure is an essential part of this responsibility. By informing about this still-existing danger, we can make sure that those who have served our country receive the care and support they rightly deserve.

(Cristina Johnson is a Navy veteran advocate for Asbestos Ships Organization, a nonprofit whose primary mission is to raise awareness and educate veterans about the dangers of asbestos exposure on Navy ships and assist them in navigating the VA claims process. For more information, visit

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