The impact of mesothelioma on U.S. veterans

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 14, 2012

In the United States, Veteran’s Day is a time to commemorate and thank the veterans of all military branches for their hard work and dedication to our country. Although this year’s Veteran’s Day has passed, it provided an opportunity to remember all that past members of the military have endured and sacrificed for our country, including their health. Though it is not a condition resulting from combat, many current veterans face deadly asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma due to frequent asbestos exposure while serving in the military.

According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, there are 22.1 million veterans as of September, 2011. Asbestos-related diseases like asbestosis, mesothelioma, and pleural plaques are frequently seen among U.S. veterans. Though various studies have predicted a decrease in diagnoses, veterans continue to develop the disease year after year. These military members may have served in the Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marines Corps or National Guard, but those who served in the Navy are considered most at risk. In fact, one-third of all fatal mesothelioma victims were exposed to asbestos on the ships and shipyards of the U.S. Navy.

Products and areas frequented by Navy personnel often contained large amounts of asbestos, a “miracle fiber” best known for its fire-proofing capabilities. This may have included engine rooms, boiler rooms, weapons and ammunition storage rooms, sleeping quarters, shipyards, navigation rooms, mess halls, flooring, wall insulation and ship machinery such as pumps, motors, condensers and compressors. Asbestos fibers are most harmful when they become airborne. The construction, renovation and demolition of ships or naval facilities, as well as any damage to these areas and items, can lead to the release of asbestos fibers into the air. As Naval ships age, the asbestos can become more brittle and more likely to become airborne.

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Asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma take years to develop; latency periods usually fall somewhere between 20 to 50 years. Veterans most at risk served in the military between the 1930s and 1970s. Today, veterans who served in the military decades ago are now experiencing mesothelioma symptoms like shortness of breath, weight loss, chest pain, fluid in the lungs, wheezing, coughing, abdominal swelling and more, depending on the type of mesothelioma.

In the last few years, the U.S. Department of Defense has placed more attention on the issue of mesothelioma and veterans. In 2008, the Department of Defense Peer Reviewed Cancer Research Program (PRCRP) included mesothelioma as a research priority for the first time. Funding was awarded to five mesothelioma researchers between 2008 and 2009, and the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation has been proactively urging mesothelioma investigators to submit applications for funding over the past two years.

Although this funding is a significant advancement for mesothelioma research, more improvement is needed. While the number of U.S. veterans with mesothelioma continues to rise, the total funding for research on mesothelioma still lags behind other cancers. Less than $6 million was put towards mesothelioma research by the National Cancer Institute between 2004 to 2007, the most recent years for which there are figures. This amounts to approximately 1 percent of NCI’s total annual budget.

Under the Department of Veteran Affairs, U.S. veterans affected by mesothelioma may be eligible for VA disability compensation benefits or healthcare benefits for any health problems they are experiencing that may be associated with asbestos exposure while serving in the military. Dependents and survivors of veterans may also be eligible. Mesothelioma litigation is another option, as experienced mesothelioma lawyers are assisting veterans every day.