Vietnam Veterans and the Risk of Asbestos Exposure
Vietnam veterans face a major health risk as a result of exposure to asbestos exposure. Asbestos exposure is the sole cause of mesothelioma, a fatal cancer affecting the cells lining vital organs. Because mesothelioma takes decades to emerge, many veterans of the Vietnam War who were exposed to asbestos during their service may only now be ill from this dreadful disease.
It is tragically ironic that the brave people who fought for our country during the Vietnam War survived the risks associated with military conflict in hostile enemy territory only to now face a life-threatening illness from the hidden danger of exposure to asbestos while on active duty.
Vietnam Military Personnel Who Might Have Suffered Asbestos Exposure
Asbestos exposure may have occurred among the 9,087,000 total veterans who served in Vietnam, especially during the most active years of US involvement from 1965 to 1975. Those affected could have included:
3,403,100 (including 514,300 offshore) veterans who served in the Southeast Asia Theater – Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, flight crews based in Thailand and sailors stationed in the South China Sea.
2,594,000 veterans who served within the borders of South Vietnam
( January 1965 – March 1973)
7,484 women who served in Vietnam, of whom 6,250 or 83.5% were nurses.
The number of living Vietnam veterans was recently estimated to be 7,391,000. These surviving veterans of the Vietnam conflict were likely exposed to asbestos during their years of service to our country. They may start to experience symptoms of mesothelioma after a latency period of as much of 50 years following their asbestos exposure.
Why Were Vietnam Veterans Exposed to Asbestos?
Veterans of the U.S. Military, many of them Vietnam veterans, account for nearly a third of all mesothelioma diagnoses because of the military’s heavy reliance on asbestos during most of the 20th century. Why? Asbestos was once highly valued for its heat resistance and fire-proofing qualities. This made it a useful material for every branch of the military. All modes of military transportation including ships, tanks, jeeps and aircraft contained asbestos.
Asbestos was used in electric wiring insulation, brake pads and clutch pads on jeeps, tanks and aircraft. Military housing and other buildings on bases were constructed with building materials containing asbestos.
It wasn’t until the mid 1970s, after public outrage and the first lawsuits over the toxicity of asbestos and its lethal consequences, that the military stopped using it. But this was too little too late for Vietnam veterans who had already been exposed to asbestos in the line of duty.
Where Vietnam Veterans Encountered Asbestos
Active members of all the branches of service in Vietnam–Army, Marines, Air Force and Navy – were in conditions with a high likelihood of exposure to asbestos. These veterans worked in repair shops stocked with asbestos-containing machinery, rode by land, air and sea in battle vehicles with asbestos parts, and lived in structures containing asbestos. Veterans of the Vietnam War were exposed to asbestos fibers through close proximity to:
- ceiling tiles
- flooring and flooring tiles
- wall insulation
- vehicle brakes, gaskets, and insulation
- asbestos cement used for foundations
- base operations facilities
The veterans most at risk from their Vietnam service are those who served in the Navy. All US battle ships commissioned between 1930 and 1970 contained tons of asbestos insulation in engine rooms, miles of piping running throughout the ships, and in the doors and walls as fireproofing measures. Although a policy was established in 1975 to end the use of asbestos and materials containing asbestos as a thermal insulation material, this policy came too late for the prevalent use of asbestos in the Navy during the Vietnam War. Asbestos fibers were also incorporated in:
- tiles on Navy ship decks
- electrical cabling in Navy galley ranges
- piping system gaskets and packing
Asbestos Exposure Symptoms
Vietnam veterans were trained to be highly aware of signs that the enemy was approaching. Today Vietnam veterans need to be aware of signs of the enemy that may lurk within. Primary symptoms of pleural (lung membrane) mesothelioma include:
- Shortness of breath
- Coughing, wheezing or hoarseness
- Blood in coughed up fluid
- Fatigue or anemia
- Chest pain due to accumulation of fluid around the lungs
Although these symptoms are shared by other illnesses, their presence combined with a history of service in Vietnam with likely asbestos exposure means it’s important to have a doctor test you for mesothelioma. If the diagnosis is confirmed, you may qualify for special financial benefits from the Veterans Administration. You may also have the right to compensation from companies that made or supplied or installed the asbestos that harmed you. If so, you could receive compensation either through a court settlement or from bankruptcy trusts set up by the companies. Either way, be sure to consult an experienced asbestos attorney.