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Part Three in a Series About Asbestos and the Military – What You Need to Know

In our continuing series about asbestos exposure in the armed forces, we have taken a look at how our military personnel were exposed to asbestos in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.  But members of the United States Coast Guard have also played a significant role in the defense of our great nation – and were equally at risk of contracting the deadly asbestos cancer known as mesothelioma

The U.S. Coast Guard is simultaneously a military force and a federal law enforcement agency dedicated to maritime safety, security and stewardship missions.  Interestingly, in times of peace the USCG operates as part of the Department of Homeland Security, enforcing the nation’s laws at sea, protecting the marine environment, and saving lives.  In times of war, the Coast Guard serves as part of the Navy Department.  These roles make this particular branch of our armed forces unique in the nation and in the world. 

Members of the U.S. Coast Guard, like those in all branches of military service, were exposed to asbestos in the normal discharge of their duties.  Asbestos is a naturally-occurring mineral which, when woven into fiber and incorporated into merchandise throughout the last century, provided heat and sound resistance, fire retardancy, tensile strength and lightweight volume to many products made by American manufacturers that were ideally suited for use in combat, as well as in the construction and maintenance of seagoing vessels built for the Navy and the Coast Guard.

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Bases and buildings: Spread across 48 states and in 26 foreign countries, the USCG has established more than a thousand stations from which to enforce maritime laws, protect coastline and port environments, perform drug and border enforcement, and effect water rescues.  These buildings were built and improved throughout the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, prime decades for the incorporation of asbestos-containing materials used in flooring, wallboards, stucco and plaster, sheetrock mud, ceiling tile, plumbing and heating insulation, exterior siding, and roofing products.

As these asbestos construction and insulating materials became worn with age and were scuffed, scraped, sanded, sawed, drilled and cut with use or for replacement, asbestos fibers were released into the air where Coast Guard crews ate, slept and worked.  Ingestion and inhalation of these dangerous strands allowed them to work their way into the deep tissues of the lungs and peritoneal cavities of our servicemen and women, where years later they threaten to cause impaired breathing and asbestosis or worse: lung cancer and the deadly asbestos cancer mesothelioma. 

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Ships and boats: In addition to their living conditions, Coast Guard service members served aboard all manner of marine vessels in the process of performing their duties.  From diminutive patrol craft and life boats to seaworthy cutters, ice-breakers, buoy tenders and tugboats, asbestos materials were used extensively due to the ever-present need to prevent fire aboard ship. 

Asbestos was used to line the bulkheads surrounding the boiler and engine rooms aboard larger watercraft, as well as for soundproofing and fireproofing throughout the ship.  Asbestos lagging covered steam pipes which carried heat and energy everywhere aboard these ocean-going vessels, through mess halls and into sleeping areas.  As the old pipe-covering began to crumble with age and wear, asbestos fibers sloughed off and become airborne, where they were easily breathed in or ingested by the crew.  Gaskets and valve-stem packing used in all the pipe connections contained asbestos, too.  When they were replaced, the Coast Guard repairmen onboard, known by their military ratings as damage controlmen or machinery technicians, had to chisel out the old, frayed gasket material and rope packing to create a smooth surface so the new gaskets and valve-packing could make a tight seal.  This caused a lot of asbestos dust to rise into the air, right where the crew members were breathing it!

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Tugboats, especially, posed an elevated risk of asbestos exposure to service personnel because their heavy-duty engines were exhausted through thick smokestacks which penetrated the deck amidships.  These mighty watercraft were tiny in comparative size; therefore the enormous engines and their giant smokestacks required thick layers of insulation right in the middle of the boat.  Crew members worked in close quarters below deck, surrounded by asbestos-laden fireproof hull coatings, asbestos-imbedded nonskid deck surfacing and asbestos-insulated pipes and wiring.

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Airplanes and helicopters: After World War II, commercial marine traffic and pleasure boating increased exponentially along America’s shores.  The Coast Guard ramped up its search and rescue operations to meet the increased demand.  The PBY 5A Catalina and the Grumman HU-16 Albatross airplanes became the backbone of the USCG’s air fleet.  In the 1950s, helicopters were introduced, such as the HH-52A, which proved to be a very efficient life-saving machine.  Every one of these aircraft utilized a multitude of asbestos components.  Aviation machinistmates used asbestos-padded clamps to repair high-temperature components in helicopters.  Asbestos brake pads and electrical wiring were used in every seaplane, aircraft and helicopter in the Coast Guard fleet until the 1980s.  In fact, almost all aircraft engines built during World War II and thereafter through the early 1980s used asbestos brake shoes, as well as asbestos gaskets in the engines and carburetion systems, all of which were replaced frequently.  Almost any fire retardant material on an aircraft included asbestos fibers in those days, just as asbestos was often a component of the seals which surrounded doors and hatches found on most military air and water craft.

Marine Inspectors:  In addition to its other roles, the United States Coast Guard is responsible for the inspection of America’s commercial vessels, our ports and facilities, and visiting foreign vessels.  A study conducted from 1942 to 1970 showed that Coast Guard marine inspectors suffered the highest mortality rate compared to all other officers in the Guard.  The study found that USCG inspectors were exposed to many toxic chemicals, including asbestos, and were more likely to develop a detrimental disease as a result.

Still an issue:  On May 2, 2014, the Coast Guard issued publication CGTTP 4-11.1, a guide to asbestos management tactics, techniques and procedures.  In this paper, the USCG revealed that during a safety check of one of its construction-tenders in March of 2012, “significant deterioration of vermiculite coatings on barges used by the tenders” was identified, which led to a class-wide asbestos assessment.  The result found nearly 5,000 square feet of damaged, friable asbestos aboard the construction-tender fleet.  The assessment also found an absence of formal training for asbestos control coordinators, few documented inventories of asbestos material within the Coast Guard and a lack of coating documentation for cutter hulls.  These revelations made clear the need to readdress how asbestos was managed throughout the United States Coast Guard.  Publication of TTP 4-11.1 was issued two years later to provide guidance on developing, implementing and maintaining an asbestos management plan to control asbestos exposure in the workplace.  Asbestos control coordinators were designated for every unit.  Asbestos-containing material inventories were conducted throughout the Guard.

We tend to think of asbestos as a danger long ago eradicated in this country.  But as this recent Coast Guard report reveals, the presence of asbestos in military applications is still very much a threat to the health and safety of our armed forces.  And, amazingly, it’s not just last-century materials turning up in today’s military.  Asbestos is still not banned in the U.S. and products incorporating asbestos fibers can be ordered online from a number of foreign entities.  Baron & Budd believes that the use of asbestos products should be outlawed everywhere.  If you would like to join the fight to ban the sale of asbestos products in America, click here.

The dedicated men and women who served our great nation in the United States Coast Guard and other branches of the military were unknowingly exposed to the grave danger of asbestos while fulfilling their loyal duties to our country.  While military veterans represent only eight percent of the American population, they comprise an astonishing 30 percent of mesothelioma deaths in the USA.  If you or one of your parents served in the Coast Guard and have been diagnosed with mesothelioma, please contact the mesothelioma lawyers at Baron & Budd to receive a completely confidential evaluation.

You will not be asked to sue the government or the military

We pursue compensation from the asbestos manufacturers who were well aware of the deadly hazard of asbestos but continued to use it in their products because it was not as expensive as other, less dangerous types of insulation.  The men and women of the United States Coast Guard work every day to ensure protection of our environment.  The American manufacturers who continued to use asbestos in their products after its danger became known should not have knowingly contaminated theirs.