In 2008, the Office of Alaska Native Health Research revealed that two of the top three cancer hazards for American Indian Alaskans were military chemicals and asbestos. Unfortunately for many U.S. veterans, military hazards and asbestos hazards were often synonymous.
Until the 1980s, the U.S. military relied on asbestos for dozens of applications. This means that millions of veterans (including the 190,000 American Indian veterans who served before the close of the 20th century) came into frequent contact with the carcinogenic fibers during their service.
Each branch of the military used asbestos in some capacity:
• The Navy, Marines and Coast Guard used asbestos insulation on ships.
• The Air Force used asbestos in their aircraft cooling systems.
• The Army’s tanks contained asbestos brakes and bearings.
The military also used asbestos construction materials on many of their bases. Tiles, shingles, adhesives and wallboard used on military bases were frequently found to contain asbestos fibers.
Additionally, military weapons, such as grenades and torpedoes, also contained asbestos. Although these were not a major asbestos threat to U.S. veterans, personnel who assembled them may easily have inhaled asbestos.
Asbestos-Related Disease Risks for Military Personnel
With so many potential sources of asbestos exposure in the military, it’s not surprising to see that the rates of asbestos-related illnesses are disproportionately high among veterans. Veterans account for nearly 30 percent of all mesothelioma patients. The rates for asbestosis, lung cancer and other asbestos-related diseases are also high in the military population.
For Native Americans, these risks are a bit lower overall.
At age 50, the average American Indian has a .0003 percent chance of developing mesothelioma. Once they reach age 85, that risk jumps to a .077 percent chance. However, between 2000 and 2009, less than 16 cases of mesothelioma were reported for all American Indians within the Contract Health Service Delivery Area counties.
Although Native Americans make up only a small portion of the 2,000 to 3,000 people who are diagnosed with mesothelioma each year in the United States, they should still take certain steps to protect their health if they were exposed to asbestos.
Resources for Asbestos-Exposed Veterans
Patients with a significant history of asbestos exposure—such as years of military service—should register for regular health screenings, regardless of their age, sex or race.
Once a veteran inhaled asbestos, the asbestos fibers could easily have lodged themselves in the lining of the lungs, stomach or abdomen. They typically remain undetected in the body. The fibers can cause biological – and potentially cancerous – changes over several decades before diseases fully develop. By the time symptoms have emerged, the disease has often progressed to a difficult-to-treat stage.
The numerous illnesses that can ultimately develop from asbestos exposure include:
• Asbestos-related lung cancer
• Ovarian cancer
• Laryngeal cancer
• Pleural plaques
Because these diseases develop silently, veterans should look into regular health screenings to detect the diseases in their earliest stages. Receiving an early diagnosis is essential for increasing an individual’s survival rate of mesothelioma. Additionally, veterans should obtain screenings for the rest of their life, because veterans who were exposed in the military may not develop conditions for as much as 50 years after they left the service.
Indian Health Service hospitals may offer these screenings, but unless the clinic has experience in diagnosing asbestos-related diseases, it may be best to find a more specialized hospital. The illnesses are relatively rare and require care from a specialist. Several VA Healthcare System hospitals are regarded as national leaders in mesothelioma care, including the Boston VA Hospital.
Veterans can file for government benefits to help pay for their care, regardless of which hospital they choose. If a veteran is diagnosed with mesothelioma and can link their asbestos exposure to their military service, they may also apply for additional benefits through the Veteran’s Association.
To learn more, go to Asbestos.com.
Faith Franz researches and writes about health-related issues for The Mesothelioma Center. She graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in English from Southeastern University and has spent several years researching and independently writing about nutrition and health, and she is committed to coverage of new treatment methods and natural therapies.