Malignant pleural mesothelioma is a rare cancer caused by exposure to the microscopic fibers produced by asbestos materials. U.S. veterans are among those people most affected by asbestos because of their exposure to the mineral while serving the country. Those who served in Vietnam were on active duty during peak use of asbestos and are among the most impacted by this terrible disease.

How Asbestos Causes Mesothelioma

Asbestos is a toxic, carcinogenic mineral that was heavily used in a number of industries from the early 1900s through the 1970s, including the period of time that includes the Vietnam War. Asbestos was used in construction materials, fireproofing, insulation, and in most industrial settings for its ability to insulate against heat and electricity, protect against fire, and add lightweight strength to materials.

As a fibrous mineral, asbestos can easily shed tiny, needle-like particles. Any disturbance releases the fibers, exposing anyone in the area. These fibers can be inhaled or ingested. They then lodge in tissues, particularly in the pleural tissue around the lungs. There they cause damage and in some people cause inflammation and cancer.

Veterans and Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma is a rare cancer but it occurs at disproportionately high rates in military veterans. Approximately one-third of diagnosed cases of mesothelioma are in veterans, while veterans make up just eight percent of the U.S. population. The explanation for this phenomenon is that veterans were exposed to asbestos at higher rates during service than civilians.

Asbestos in Vietnam

All veterans who served in Southeast Asia or the Middle East were potentially exposed to asbestos, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. This includes men and women who served in Vietnam. Those at the highest risk served in the U.S. Navy. Ships, both military and civilian used a lot of asbestos because of its fire proofing properties and because it did not add a lot of weight to ships.

During the Vietnam War any service member could have been exposed through building materials in barracks as well as materials in aircraft and vehicles. Some of the jobs that would have led to the most exposure include:

  • Any job on U.S. Navy ships
  • Mechanics working on vehicles and aircraft, especially those handling brakes and clutches
  • Shipyard workers
  • Pipefitters
  • Insulation workers
  • Anyone who worked on the construction or repair of military buildings

Many Vietnam veterans returned home to work in fields in which they were trained in the military, which means that some continued to experience asbestos exposure. Auto mechanics, construction workers, and those who went on to work in civilian shipping may have been exposed for years after service.

Benefits for Vietnam Veterans with Mesothelioma

Veterans who are diagnosed with mesothelioma or another asbestos-related illness may be entitled to VA benefits. To qualify, veterans must show evidence that their exposure to asbestos occurred during their military service.

For these veterans the VA may offer disability payment. The pay is monthly and depends on how severe the illness is and how much disability it causes. Veterans may also receive free healthcare at VA hospitals. Because of the high exposure rates, several VA hospitals staff specialists in mesothelioma treatment.


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