Asbestos exposure continues to be a pressing concern in Texas, which is home to many military facilities, mainly belonging to the Air Force and the Army. Texas also has a long coastline along the Gulf of Mexico with several shipyards. Veterans employed in shipyard work, construction, insulation work, demolition of old buildings, manufacturing and installation of products such as roofing shingles, pipe coverings, ceiling, and floor tiles, were at high risk for repeated exposure to asbestos.
Overview of Asbestos Use in Military Bases in Texas
Until the 1980s, asbestos was a widely utilized insulator due to its resistance to heat and flame and durability while being flexible enough to be employed in a wide variety of applications. It was commonly used in shipyards, base barracks, mess halls, hospitals, and other structures where troops slept, worked, and ate in Texas. However, the diverse use of asbestos did not outweigh the dangers: former service members would suffer from terrible diseases caused by asbestos, which, due to its delayed symptoms, continues to be the reason why so many people are diagnosed with lung diseases and cancers today.
The U.S. Army stopped using asbestos and removed most asbestos from existing bases in the mid-1970s after knowing its dangerous effects surfaced. Still, unfortunately, the damage had already been done—thousands of military personnel had already been exposed to the hazardous material.
Asbestos Used in Army Buildings: All of the Army’s water-based heating and plumbing systems
(boilers and pipes that ran throughout each post and into each structure) were insulated with asbestos. These barracks, shops, medical facilities, and meal halls have been continuously used since World War II. When the asbestos-containing materials frayed due to wear, they discharged deadly fibers into the air.
Exposure to Asbestos from Army Vehicles: Clutch facings and brakes pads were asbestos-based, including the gaskets in the fuel and water pumps, as well as the majority of the hoses under the hood. Consequently, in addition to the environment in which they lived and worked, veterans were exposed to asbestos due to vehicle maintenance and repair, motor pool operations, parts inventory, vehicle disposal, and vehicle dispatch.
Exposure to Asbestos from Ammunition and Artillery: Army infantrymen and artillerymen often used asbestos-made gloves to protect themselves from extreme temperatures when loading machine gun barrels and handling hot artillery shells. The asbestos gloves disintegrated over time, releasing microscopic asbestos fibers. Chrysotile asbestos fibers were often used in the dummy charges used for howitzer guns and would spew asbestos dust as they broke apart during training exercises.
The Effects of Chemical and Toxic Exposure on a Veteran’s Health
Because of the size and structure of these fibers, asbestos may linger in the air between 48–72 hours; the threads are almost invisible to the human eye, unable to be touched or tasted. Individuals may inhale large quantities of asbestos fibers without even realizing it. Moreover, asbestos-related diseases can take decades to develop, and it can be just as long before victims have any. Unfortunately, this usually affects the diagnosis and treatment.
In addition to asbestos, past disposal practices at many federal facilities in Texas, including discharging contaminated wastewater to unlined settling pits and burning waste in fire training exercises, have led to the inclusion of some of these installations to the Superfund program’s National Priorities List. For instance, at Bexar County’s Air Force Base, environmental contamination caused by the maintenance and repair of military aircraft and operation of industrial wastewater treatment systems can result in the development of certain cancers, including kidney, testicular, prostate, breast, liver, and ovarian cancers.
Today’s veterans may have physical and psychological effects that may last for decades, depending on many variables, including the combat they fought, the type and frequency of potentially traumatic experiences, and the danger of exposure to different toxins. However, to assist them, we must take action to ensure they have access to the benefits they deserve and to high-quality health care.
About the author:
Jonathan Sharp is the CFO at Environmental Litigation Group, P.C., a law firm specializing in occupational toxic exposure and helping those harmed by defective products and long-term exposure to asbestos, PFAS, and paraquat, among many others.