Health Care Professionals and Asbestos Exposure

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The medical challenges that the U.S. military faced during World War II were highly varied and numerous, as they had to tend to the needs of service members fighting throughout the world.

The Navy required specialists to help handle the sensitive matters they were frequently faced with and had to overcome. However, the risks of using asbestos were disregarded, despite medical reports warning against exposure, due to the progressive nature of the related diseases.

As a result, while asbestos stopped being used on ships towards the 1980s, service members began displaying the harsh consequences of exposure.

Hospital workers had to perform in environments that included asbestos through insulation, pipe fittings, bricks, and many more materials, which once damaged, enabled daily fiber inhalation.

Navy nurses were essential during the war and had training in anesthesia, surgery, orthopedics, physiotherapy, psychiatry, to name the least. Aboard hospital ships, Navy nurses followed the fleet in their assaults and accompanied the fighting men to the beaches to help recover injured service members. Their primary duties involved tending to the wounded but also training hospital corpsmen. After the preparation ended, they were sent aboard fighting ships to render emergency treatment to service members. They were also in charge of maintaining medical records, supervise medicine programs and pharmacies, and work in surgical suites.

Doctors on Navy ships had a different, broader set of priorities, which regarded the sick as a whole instead of individually, controlling the number of able servicemen and deciding who is safe to return to duty.

Alden N., a Hospital corpsman on the USS IOLANDA (AKS-14), said: "Whenever someone performed their daily duties, through any process that altered or penetrated asbestos-containing items, fibers were rapidly spread into the room, where they also remained. Ventilation was poorly distributed, and the spaces were so crammed that with every breath, we were putting ourselves in harm's way without even knowing."

Inhaling asbestos fibers can cause lung inflammation and lead to cancer decades later.

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