Of all the groups hit by asbestos exposure during the period when it was used, servicemen in the army are among the most severely affected. Asbestos was used heavily in nearly every area where servicemen worked, lived, slept, ate, and breathed. Unlike others on the home front who only worked with the material and could escape to their homes at night, army members could never avoid the danger of asbestos exposure.
From the 1940s to 1970s, the United States used asbestos in barracks. The primary benefit of this natural mineral is its fireproofing qualities. It was cheap and plentiful, making it a perfect insulation material. As a result of its ubiquity, asbestos fibers filled the air where soldiers worked and lived. Anyone who served during this period was likely exposed to significant levels of the mineral.
Navy members were particularly affected by asbestos out of all servicemen. Navy vessels made use of tons of asbestos to help prevent the spread of fires that could be devastating at sea. However, every branch of the armed forces used Navy vessels at one time or another, so even those not in the Navy were exposed to the asbestos fibers that filled the ships.
This chronic exposure to asbestos and its fibers has caused two significant problems in many servicemen. Some have contracted asbestosis, an inflammation of the lungs that could cause respiratory failure. Others develop mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer that is hard to diagnose and treat. What makes these diseases particularly dangerous is the length of time between first exposure and the appearance of symptoms. Many of the veterans exposed to this mineral only develop symptoms decades after their exposure. Thirty percent of mesothelioma sufferers are believed to have been exposed to asbestos while serving in the military, while many more have diseases waiting to become apparent.
It is still unclear how much asbestos exposure is necessary to cause these diseases. Some believe that the amount of asbestos and the length of time a person is exposed to it can influence the chances of developing these diseases. Nevertheless, others argue that even being exposed to low amounts of asbestos can lead to negative health outcomes. All that can be concluded is that army veterans were exposed to high levels of asbestos for long periods of time and as a result, their health has been compromised. However, the full effects of this exposure will only reveal themselves in the coming decades.