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While the use of asbestos was extensively used in every branch of the military, especially from the early 1940s through the 1970s, it was most commonly used in the Navy, especially in the construction of ships. The physical properties of asbestos made it ideal for a wide variety of applications: It is heat and chemical resistant, has incredible tensile strength, is an excellent soundproofing material, and has unparalleled insulating qualities. Its capabilities were so dynamic that it was dubbed the "miracle material" and was employed in hundreds of products and processes.
Unfortunately, those who worked with or otherwise came in contact with asbestos-laden materials were not made aware of its dangers, neither were they given the equipment necessary to protect themselves. This was particularly the case for military personnel serving between the 1940s and 1970s who spent any time in or around a Navy ship. It also applies to those involved in ship construction and those serving as longshoremen, loading and unloading ships' cargoes. Even those individuals who were not directly in contact with materials aboard ships still ran a risk of asbestos exposure, as the material was used in just about every building constructed by the military, including offices and living quarters.
It is now known that those who served in the military during the years in question suffer an elevated rate of asbestos-related illnesses, including mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer. The United States Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that of the 25 million military veterans living, millions of them most likely received some level of asbestos exposure during their service. For those working in or around Navy ships, the risk is even higher, since asbestos use was so common on these vessels.
In his 1939 Annual Report, the surgeon general of the U.S. Navy talked about the hazards of asbestos use at the New York Navy Yard, but his concerns were virtually ignored. Definitive evidence connecting the use of asbestos with long-term health effects was present, but because of the perceived value of using this material in ship construction, the warnings went unheeded, as asbestos had too many positive qualities. So in its effort to produce the most powerful armada of warships in history, the U.S. Navy effectively made the decision to basically sacrifice the long-term health of its service members.
The result of all this exposure is often mesothelioma, a life-threatening and, as yet, incurable form of cancer. It has two attributes that make it difficult to diagnose and treat in a timely manner:
Research and advancements in treatments to deal with mesothelioma are ongoing as more and more cases come to light. For those who served in the military, especially the Navy, between 1940 and 1970, it is critical that any mesothelioma symptoms be taken seriously and that patients be referred to a doctor specializing in this unique field of medicine.
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