Asbestos Exposure in the U.S. Coast Guard


Asbestos use was widespread in the 1900s, and products containing this toxic material were found in most Navy ships built before the 1980s, from patrol boats to submarines, battleships, and aircraft carriers. Asbestos's prevalence in shipbuilding underlines that asbestos contamination was not limited to specific naval vessels, and all personnel on these ships were at a high risk of asbestos exposure.

The United States Coast Guard (USCG) also constructed hundreds of ships with asbestos-containing materials, among them cutters - the flagship vessels of the Coast Guard with lengths from 65 feet to over 200 feet for those that carried helicopters. These boats operate as:

  • buoy tenders
  • construction tenders
  • escort ships
  • fast response vessels
  • harbor tugs
  • national security patrol vessels
  • polar icebreakers
  • training cutters
  • Great Lakes icebreakers

The U.S. Armed Forces began purchasing and applying asbestos and asbestos-containing products during the 1930s, but asbestos use peaked during World War II. The USCG was tasked with vital roles at home and abroad during the war, and the missions demanded properly fireproofed and insulated vessels. With asbestos marketed as a miracle material at a more than accessible price, it was also applied on USCG ships. In wartime, the USCG operated more than 350 naval ships, 800 cutters, and nearly 300 ships for the Army. Coast Guard cutters built before 1991 contained asbestos, and, consequently, anyone who worked on or berthed in a USGC cutter may have been exposed to asbestos from being in contact with:

  • thermal insulation
  • duct pipe wrap
  • electrical wire coating
  • gaskets and boiler lining
  • floor and ceiling tiles
  • sealants and adhesives
  • fireproof doors
  • hatches and valves
  • pumps

Certain areas of these cutters contained asbestos-based products in high concentrations, especially the spaces below the deck. Like many other Navy and Coast Guard ships, cutters often had poor ventilation that allowed asbestos fibers to linger in the air longer, and those onboard could easily inhale them. Asbestos-based products onboard USCG cutters were usually found in:

  • Sleeping quarters: asbestos was used in flooring material, ceiling tiles, and wall insulation.
  • Engine and boiler rooms: asbestos gaskets and insulation were applied to prevent fires in these rooms, as they get very hot.
  • Pump rooms: valves, gaskets, and pipes often contain asbestos to prevent overheating.

Risking Asbestos Exposure While Working on Daily Tasks

The handling of asbestos-containing items exposed Coast Guard members to the carcinogen daily. Since no amount of asbestos exposure is safe, they were in constant danger of inhaling or ingesting the airborne particles. Their risk of developing asbestos-related diseases increased significantly the longer they were around these contaminated products.

Removing asbestos-containing materials from cutters presented another chance for exposure in the Coast Guard. Wearing personal protective equipment during the renovation wasn't a requirement, so those with renovation tasks risked higher levels of asbestos exposure. USCG personnel responsible for reparation and maintenance came in contact with asbestos products like brake pads and engine linings while working on:

  • vehicles
  • planes
  • helicopters

In the USCG facilities on land, asbestos was a part of everyday life, as virtually every base and installation used countless construction products made with asbestos.

Another routine toxic exposure source on the cutters would include lead dust from lead ballast ingots and lead-containing paint. Exceptional exposures may have occurred during specific maintenance procedures during torching or sanding surfaces painted with lead-containing paint without personal protective equipment. These days, the risk of asbestos exposure in the Coast Guard is lower, but dozens of cutters built with the material are still in use.

Lasting Health Damages After Longtime Asbestos Exposure

It wasn't until the late 30s that scientists discovered how prolonged asbestos exposure affected human health, but despite the devastating results, the toxic mineral was banned only much later. Consequently, personnel who served on Navy ships built before the 1980s faced a high risk of asbestos exposure and the chances of developing asbestos-related cancers such as:

Veterans diagnosed with these cancers are eligible for expedited claims and immediately qualify for compensation if they have proof of exposure to asbestos and medical documentation stating one of the above-mentioned malignant diseases.

Asbestos-related illnesses are complex and can often be misdiagnosed as their symptoms resemble common, less dangerous respiratory diseases. Doctors can misread the signs and advise inadequate treatments, unknowingly wasting precious time and facing patients in a worsened condition later. To prevent such events, Navy veterans should make an appointment with the doctor and schedule a checkup when experiencing:

  • shortness of breath
  • chest tightness
  • chest pain
  • wheezing
  • dizziness
  • fatigue
  • unintentional weight loss
  • persistent dry cough
  • pain with inspiration

Requesting periodic chest X-rays and pulmonary function tests can help discover the extent of damages caused by the inhaled asbestos fibers and is a relevant diagnostic tool for non-cancerous asbestos diseases such as:

Although these illnesses don't qualify a veteran for compensation, they should be periodically checked because they tend to develop into cancer. Imagistic tests can detect these conditions at the beginning of turning into cancer, and a cancer diagnosis entitles veterans to file claims.

It is vital for vets to go to the doctor when the first signs appear and to ask for a second or even a third doctor's opinion outside the VA for an exact diagnosis. A pulmonary expert's opinion will also ensure the best appropriate treatment that may add years to veterans' lives. You can help your health's correct assessment by speaking about the military service with your doctor and the chances of asbestos exposure on the ships.

Assisting Veterans to Claim the Rightful Compensation

Navy veterans who served the country in the period between 1930 and 1980 are at a high risk of developing incapacitating diseases from exposure to asbestos and toxic chemicals during service. Asbestos-related conditions require medical care and treatments that generate high costs and may quickly drain veterans' financial and emotional resources.

Former service members diagnosed with cancer due to asbestos exposure may be eligible to file for compensation if they can prove service connection. We can assist by connecting you with experienced attorneys ready to help with your case.

If you have a cancer diagnosis please contact us

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