Most US Navy vessels built before 1980 were abundant with asbestos, a fibrous mineral responsible for affecting the health of thousands of shipyard workers and sailors. Those deployed on these ships risked developing serious asbestos-related conditions decades after their service.
But the Navy work environment wasn't hazardous due to asbestos only. Silica dust was another harmful agent endangering sailors' respiratory systems. Since exposure to certain toxic substances is very likely to result in a malignant disease over the years, veterans of the Navy had yet another health risk to face.
Enlisted personnel doing maintenance work were exposed to asbestos and silica dust firsthand. Regular repair and preservation on the ships were usually done without protective equipment, as dust wasn't considered a health risk. Silica dust occurred when deckhands ground the nonskid material from the hangar deck of the carrier ships without a protective mask or respirator.
The nonskid surfaces were coated with an abrasive material that contained silica, aluminum, and titanium particles. It covered carrier decks to prevent airplanes from sliding into the ocean during landings. Crew members had to grind the worn coating and apply it fresh periodically. They usually worked with pneumatic-powered grinders that cracked the nonskid material into pieces, generating dust clouds.
Sailors remember looking like coal miners covered in dust at the end of each day after the scraping assignment. They also recall the coughing fits they would have. However, the toxic exposure was not limited to the deck grinders, as the dust eventually reached all parts of the ship thanks to the ventilation system, exposing the entire crew. As a veteran who served on the USS Nimitz recalls: "We were around the paint and the dust the whole time because we lived on the ship even when it was in the shipyard undergoing repairs."
Veterans Experience Severe Breathing Problems Many Years After Inhaling Silica Dust
Microscopic particles can be easily inhaled deep into the lungs, becoming trapped there and causing damage to the surrounding tissues. It is the case of airborne dust particles, which are small enough to bypass the body's natural defenses effectively. Sand and dust don't break down; our bodies don't have defense mechanisms to facilitate that. Once in the lungs, the dust particles scar the tissues, producing lung nodules that make breathing difficult.
According to statistics, up to 70% of veterans' respiratory illnesses are diagnosed during and after dust exposure. Therefore, former Navy service members should seek medical attention if they experience any respiratory symptoms. Navy veterans often report shortness of breath and decreased exercise tolerance after silica dust exposure. Being aware of the potential risks of having inhaled silica dust during service can expedite a correct diagnosis of their condition.
Like many respiratory illnesses caused by exposure to particulate matter over an extended period, lung conditions originating from inhaled silica dust can be misdiagnosed and mistreated. Doctors often misread the symptoms and treat veterans exposed to silica particles with common respiratory diseases like bronchiolitis. The swelling in the small airway branches of the lungs and the chronic cough are indicators of degenerative processes in the lungs due to the lodged silica particles. Still, they are also signs of other common diseases.
To help doctors differentiate between life-threatening and less dangerous lung diseases, veterans should tell about their encounters with silica dust. Knowing that frequent or repeated exposure to silica particles inflames the lungs, they should ask for breathing tests and discuss an eventual lung biopsy - it could help avoid silicosis being misdiagnosed as sarcoidosis. Frequent misdiagnosis is confirmed with studies now, showing that hundreds of cases were wrongly diagnosed as pulmonary sarcoidosis instead of silicosis, and benefits were often denied because a service connection was not made.
Silicosis originates from breathing in silica dust, and it's an incurable illness defined by the development of scar tissue in the lungs, making them lose their elasticity, and breathing becomes increasingly difficult. Generally, it manifests through symptoms like:
- chest pain
- shortness of breath
- chronic cough
- loss of appetite
- sleep problems
- recurrent lung inflammation
- bluish skin
Moreover, silicosis often mimics the symptoms of sarcoidosis, which has no known cause, but medical evidence shows that it may result from the immune system's response to unidentified environmental agents. Sarcoidosis usually heals with treatment after a few years, whereas silicosis has no cure. The black lung typical in the case of silicosis is the same lung condition that characterizes asbestosis, which develops from inhaling asbestos fibers. Heavy exposure to silica dust makes former Navy personnel much more likely to develop lung cancer, the life-altering disease that can result from longtime asbestos exposure as well.
Abrasive Blasting Put Shipyard Workers at Risk
When a ship is built or repaired in the dock, surfaces must be cleaned before welding or painting with abrasive blasting. The technique uses compressed air to blow sand at high velocity, removing from the surfaces ingrained substances like:
- old paint
- mill scale
- salts and dirt
The process releases considerable amounts of respirable mineral particles, including crystalline silica. Shipyard workers usually manually blasted various parts of the ship, exposing themselves to the danger of inhaling the toxic dust. Anyone who worked in blasting while building the vessels, repairing them in dry dock, or even onboard may have been exposed to airborne silica. Silica dust is a significant health hazard because it's a carcinogen. People who have inhaled airborne silica particles are at increased risk of developing severe silica-related diseases, including:
- lung cancer
- kidney disease
- pulmonary fibrosis
An Asbestos-Related Cancer Diagnosis Makes Veterans Eligible for Compensation
Former US Navy service members who served between 1940 and 1980 were presumably exposed to significant amounts of asbestos and should be increasingly attentive to their health, seeing that exposure to the microscopic asbestos fibers is the culprit of malignant diseases like:
- esophageal cancer
- pharyngeal cancer
- gastrointestinal cancer
- lung cancer
- colorectal cancer
- urogenital cancer
- laryngeal cancer
- bronchial cancer
Veterans diagnosed with these illnesses qualify for indemnification from asbestos trust funds and the VA. They can have the advantage of expedited claims if there's a service connection to their cancer and they have medical documents about the condition.
Many veterans may discover only now relevant information about the dangers of asbestos applied on the ships and the regular exposure during service. We offer help by putting them in contact with expert attorneys ready to assist them in successfully filing for the deserved benefits.