Written by Eric Stevenson, Special to 91outcomes
Although the EPA formally began regulation of the use of asbestos in the 1970s, evidence of the military’s use of the substance continued even after it was banned for other commercial purposes. Furthermore, the use of military ships containing the dangerous mineral, including the Atlantic Freighter, continued even after the widespread knowledge of the negative consequences of exposure to this material. The Atlantic Freighter, a Vessel built by South Korea, was used by the United States Military Sealift Command in 1990 and also carried out supply missions during the Gulf War.
In 2007, the owner of the ship, the Crown Corporation, advised former and current crew members to get medical testing for the presence of mesothelioma symptoms, indicating that the material was not removed after its discovery in 1990. Another vessel that served in the Persian Gulf, the USS Worden, was laid down in 1961, which is well before asbestos use was regulated. This ship also served extensively in military operations throughout its 30-year history, carrying thousands of former soldiers during her service. In addition to this cruiser, the Gulf War also required the use of naval aircraft carriers for the frequent aerial bombing that took place, especially in the initial stages of the conflict. Like the Worden and Atlantic Freighter, these older vessels also might have contained dangerous asbestos materials.
Unfortunately for Gulf War veterans who might have served on these obsolete vessels, asbestos exposure was extremely high because of the likelihood the material were exposed. Naval vessels endure tremendous strain throughout their daily operations, both from the physical act of sailing and the exposure to the harsh ocean climate. While relatively safe if undamaged, asbestos on these ships stood a far greater chance of being both damaged and present in areas of the ship that could affect crewmen. In addition, because the hull of naval vessels remains relatively enclosed, receiving little air circulation, these men faced an increased risk of asbestos exposure, especially as the ships aged and the material escaped in greater quantities.
Unfortunately for those exposed to asbestos, mesothelioma symptoms remain latent for decades, frequently mimicking other lesser illnesses when they do appear. This late recognition leads to the delayed treatment of the cancer, which seriously hurts a patient’s prognosis. On average, patients typically only survive between eight and 14 months after initial diagnosis.
Unfortunately, the military does not provide support for veterans unless they can prove their asbestos exposure took place in the military alone. Historically, this has been difficult for former military members, many of whom later take manufacturing and construction jobs that involve frequent asbestos exposure. With 30% of those who contract mesothelioma having served in the military, all individuals who suspect exposure need to get tested in order to ensure a swift course of treatment is began if the presence of asbestos is identified in the veteran’s system. Although the phase out of asbestos use began more ten years before the start of the Gulf War, history has shown that those who served in the war are not free of the additional medical risk of asbestos, adding to the lasting legacy of a war that sent many military members home with serious illness.