Commentary: Asbestos exposure may still affect New York veterans’ health

Awareness is key for helping those who served.

Flags of the U.S. armed forces.

Flags of the U.S. armed forces. TomFawls

Over the past century, as the World War II war effort demanded large quantities of affordable materials to make military equipment, the U.S. military overly used asbestos. The mineral was abundant in the markets, and manufacturers capitalized on its qualities and low price by ignoring the health risks associated with mass-producing asbestos products. The growing number of toxic exposure cases among veterans today reflects the many health hazards they faced during service, including asbestos exposure. 

The Navy applied the most asbestos, as ships needed insulation from bow to stern to fight battles on the oceans. The Two-Ocean Navy Act expanded the U.S. Naval Forces by more than 70%, anticipating the States' entry into the war, and shipbuilding complied with this by using asbestos insulation wherever possible. It put naval personnel of ships built before the 1980s at a high risk of asbestos exposure and developing severe asbestos diseases decades after service. 

New York’s World War II naval history includes Bethlehem Steel in Staten Island, established in 1895. The shipyard produced asbestos-containing ships at its total capacity, employing approximately 12,000 workers. By World War II, the yard's operation expanded, building larger vessels for the Navy. The expansion meant more civilians and military personnel worked in a heavily asbestos-contaminated environment, resulting in thousands of asbestos exposure cases.

However, this doesn’t exclude bases of other military branches from being potential sources of asbestos contamination. This is why asbestos exposure is still a health issue for all veterans who might have the toxic fibers in their lungs, including those among the large veteran community in the state of New York and New York City’s veterans.

New York has five military bases, including the U.S. Military Academy Army Base in West Point, which provided officers during world wars and the Cold War. The Saratoga Springs NSU Navy Base supports training for managing nuclear power, hosting the Nuclear Power Training Unit and making the base one of the most important in the U.S.

Asbestos exposure has a disastrous impact on veterans’ health

Asbestos dust is one of the most toxic substances humans have ever encountered. Airborne asbestos particles can float in the air for hours when disturbed, and due to their microscopic size, they can be easily inhaled or ingested. The tiny, sharp-edged fibers permanently damage significant organs and lead to devastating diseases.

One of the most terrible aspects of diseases stemming from asbestos exposure is the decades-long latency period between initial exposure and the first symptoms. Even if veterans had no health issues in their service time, they’d learn the effects of exposure only when they are diagnosed with illnesses linked to it, like asbestosis, lung cancer, mesothelioma, or other severe respiratory diseases.

With New York ranking 24th in the nation for lung cancer and as a top state for asbestos exposure, veterans should seek medical attention as soon as possible. Given that early detection improves treatment outcomes significantly and extends life expectancy, they can take proactive steps by:

Scheduling regular health check-ups: Periodic medical examinations and speaking openly about military service and possible asbestos exposure are crucial. Inhaled asbestos particles injure the lungs first, so veterans should get chest X-rays, CT scans, and pulmonary function (breathing) tests. These tests accurately show any damage caused by the asbestos fibers and are reliable in diagnosing benign and malignant asbestos-related illnesses.

Learning about their legal rights:  Vets who know they worked in an asbestos-contaminated environment while serving or those who suspect they may have been exposed should know their rights and options. Legal avenues and compensation programs are available through asbestos trust funds and Veterans Affairs to help former service members harmed by asbestos exposure.

Veterans can play a central role in raising awareness and educating people by sharing their knowledge about asbestos exposure. By doing so, they can ensure that others who have served our country are informed.

Besides expressing our gratitude to veterans, we also have a responsibility to help protect their well-being. By drawing attention to this still lurking danger, we can make sure that those who protected our nation 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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