Military veterans account for an estimated 30 percent of all those diagnosed with mesothelioma, but only 8 percent of the total adult population in the U.S.
There is a reason for the significant discrepancy.
Veterans were unknowingly targeted. And they are paying the price today.
Mesothelioma is the rare and aggressive cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. The versatile, naturally occurring mineral once was used extensively throughout all branches of military service for its ability to strengthen and resist heat with almost everything mixed with it.
Although the use of asbestos has dropped significantly — in the military and civilian settings — mesothelioma incidence remains stubbornly steady, primarily because of the long latency period (20-50 years) between exposure and diagnosis. Those who were exposed in the height of asbestos use in early ‘70s are just now being diagnosed.
Approximately 3,000 Americans are diagnosed annually, translating to 1,000 military veterans. The toxicity of asbestos will haunt veterans for many more years.
The good news is the VA health care system has two of the best mesothelioma specialists in the country. Thoracic surgeon Dr. Abraham Lebenthal at the VA Boston Healthcare System splits his time with the renowned Brigham and Women’s Hospital nearby.
Meanwhile, thoracic surgeon Dr. Robert Cameron at the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center shares his time with the Pacific Meso Center and the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.
If a patient is well enough to travel, they often can receive a referral from their local VA to see one of these two surgeons. The Mesothelioma Center helps with travel arrangements.
Seeing a specialist is critical for a veteran because many medical professionals — and even many oncologists —have never seen or treated this rare disease. Consulting a specialist can increase survival substantially.
The specialists are using a three-pronged treatment approach that includes a combination of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. Specialists today also are using gene therapy, immunotherapy and photodynamic therapy. And they are getting good results.
"Mesothelioma is so complex, and its care so specialized, that a patient really needs — and these veterans deserve — the best care in the world," Lebenthal told Asbestos.com. “We're in a unique position to offer it here."
Although U.S. Navy veterans have the highest incidence rate, all branches of services were affected by the high levels of asbestos use throughout much of the 20th century.
Ships and submarines built in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s were covered with asbestos because of its fireproofing qualities. More than 300 products on those ships included asbestos.
The boiler rooms, engine rooms, ammunition storage rooms — anywhere requiring heat resistance — were coated with asbestos. The pipes, adhesives, paneling and insulating materials throughout the ships and subs all contained asbestos. So did the sleeping quarters, where the poor air circulation made it particularly dangerous.
The U.S. Army used asbestos products liberally throughout its bases. The buildings where the soldiers worked, ate and slept had asbestos. It was in the flooring, caulking, roofing and plumbing system. The vehicles they drove and the weapons they used had asbestos.
The U.S. Air Force jets were filled with asbestos parts, putting airmen and mechanics at risk. The bases where the airmen lived and worked were thick with asbestos products.
The U.S. Marines had similar problems. They often were deployed on Navy ships, too. No veteran was immune to the risk.
Asbestos was utilized initially to make things safer and protect the servicemen. Its heat resistance, durability and affordability made it attractive.
Unfortunately, the long-term health risks were ignored until the mid- to late-1980s when the public outcry brought more attention to the problem. And too often, those ships, subs, jeeps, jets and bases remained in use for too many years.
Although only a small number of those exposed were diagnosed with mesothelioma, others ended up with asbestosis, lung cancer or various respiratory disease stemming from toxic asbestos.
Tim Povtak is a content writer for the Mesothelioma Center and Asbestos.com, an informational source for mesothelioma patients and families.