Protecting those who protected us: Raising awareness of Navy veterans’ asbestos exposure

Every military branch relied on asbestos-based products for decades, but Navy veterans were at an exceptionally high risk of asbestos exposure. They worked and ...

Asbestos exposure is a continuous concern for Navy veterans who served on ships built from the 1930s to the early 1980s. Asbestos was once celebrated for its remarkable heat resistance and insulating properties and found its way into countless aspects of shipbuilding during the 20th century. The mineral was a hidden peril on the naval vessels, and everybody oversaw the potent threat it represents when its microscopic fibers become airborne and are inhaled.  

Permanent health damages due to asbestos exposure 

Every military branch relied on asbestos-based products for decades, but Navy veterans were at an exceptionally high risk of asbestos exposure. They worked and lived close to asbestos-containing materials over the years of duty, often unaware of the lurking danger. Due to the hazardous materials being practically everywhere throughout the naval vessels, all personnel onboard risked exposure to asbestos.  

The consequences of asbestos exposure are grave. The inhaled or ingested asbestos fibers cause debilitating conditions for an extended period after lodging in the body’s tissues, primarily in the lungs. The fact that asbestos-related illnesses often take decades to develop means that Navy veterans exposed to asbestos many years ago may only now be experiencing the devastating effects.  

 Addressing challenges Navy-style by acting promptly

Learning about the connection between their illnesses and military service can be overwhelming for veterans. Apart from the physical challenges, there’s an emotional toll often underestimated and overlooked. It is why many find themselves feeling isolated and unsupported, an emotional burden that can exacerbate their health issues.  

Situations like these call for reflexes deeply ingrained during their time in the Navy, and veterans need to take proactive steps to protect their health:  

Periodic health check-ups: It is crucial to undergo periodic medical check-ups and be transparent with healthcare providers about military service and potential asbestos exposure. Early detection improves treatment outcomes and adds years to life. Therefore, veterans should ask for regular chest X-rays, as they reveal any occurred changes caused by the inhaled asbestos fibers and are a diagnostic procedure for both malignant and benign illnesses stemming from asbestos exposure. 

Lungs are primarily affected by inhaled asbestos fibers, and a relevant test for their health is the pulmonary function test (also known asthe breathing test). It is an assessment tool that will show results for lung expansion capacity and oxygen intake volume – values necessary in treatment for asthma, emphysema and other chronic lung problems deriving from asbestos exposure.  

Asbestos diseases are complex and thus often misdiagnosed as they produce symptoms similar to common acute respiratory conditions, so asking for a second doctor’s opinion is advisable. Veterans with Medicare or Medicaid should also go outside of the VA and seek a pulmonary specialist’s opinion. Private insurance potentially provides extra coverage for vets and their medical needs so that former Navy service members may have coverage for various specialist consultations. In some cases of advanced asbestos-related diseases, Navy vets received an exact diagnosis after a second consultation with a pulmonologist.  

Know your rights: Veterans who suspect they may have been exposed to asbestos during their service should know their legal rights and options. Compensation programs and legal avenues are available to assist those affected by asbestos exposure.   

As a veteran, you have the legal right to seek monetary compensation from asbestos trust funds and apply for VA disability benefits. Asbestos trust funds are an important source of financial compensation for people injured by occupational exposure, including former Navy personnel. These funds were set up by liable companies that entered bankruptcy protection and have approximately $37 billion currently available for future claimants. Navy veterans injured by asbestos exposure during service in the military can file a claim for remuneration with both asbestos trust funds and Veterans Affairs.   

It’s essential to know that the sum received from asbestos trust funds will not affect your VA disability claim, as financial-wise, the VA’s only concern is to prevent veterans from claiming compensation multiple times for the same illness. Therefore, veterans can rest assured that the money received from asbestos trust funds will not affect the VA’s decision regarding their disability claim. Although trusts award the most money to those diagnosed with mesothelioma ($300,000-$400,000), other asbestos-related diseases can still receive substantial compensation.  

In addition, Navy veterans who file claims with asbestos trust funds first and receive approval will have thoroughly evaluated documentation at their hands, which will considerably speed up their VA claim approval process. The same trust funds compensate those exposed secondhand, such as veterans’ family members. They may also file claims if their health is compromised following their indirect encounter with the toxic asbestos fibers.  

It is common for veterans harmed by asbestos exposure to refuse to seek financial compensation during their lifetime or pass away before their claim process is finalized. In such cases, family members can step in and file a claim with asbestos trust funds to recover compensation for their loved one, or they can complete the claim process in progress.  

Raise awareness: Veterans can play a pivotal role in educating their communities and fellow servicemen and women about the risks of asbestos exposure. Through sharing their experiences and knowledge, they can help ensure that others who served the country are informed.  

As we honor the contribution and dedication of our Navy veterans, let us also acknowledge our responsibility to safeguard their health and well-being. Awareness of asbestos exposure is an integral part of this responsibility. By shedding light on this hidden danger, we can ensure that those who served at sea 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.  

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