Guest comment: Asbestos exposure may be harming Nevada veterans

The U.S. military abundantly used asbestos-containing products due to their accessibility and low price. As a result, many service members were exposed to this toxic material while protecting our country. The increasing number of toxic exposure cases among our veterans today underscores the health risks they took, in addition to the challenges of service. These courageous men and women now could develop serious asbestos diseases deriving from their military years. 

Substantial amounts of asbestos in military bases throughout the state 

Not too long ago, the hazardous mineral was praised for its insulating and fire-resistant properties—and nobody thought about asbestos being a threat when its microscopic fibers were released into the air and inhaled. It’s why developing asbestos diseases is a concern for all veterans who might have the toxic fibers in their lungs, including those in the city of Reno and throughout Nevada. Although the armed forces used asbestos mainly for insulation in aircraft, vehicles, barracks, ships and shipyards, the Navy exploited it the most. Consequently, veterans serving onboard naval vessels during the last century were at an exceptionally high risk of asbestos exposure. But this fact doesn’t lessen the asbestos exposure risks of personnel serving in military camps throughout the U.S.  

Nevada is home to the Naval Air Station Fallon, as well as Nellis Air Force Base and Creech Air Force Base. The state also includes the Hawthorne Army Depot, established in 1930 and still essential to storing, repairing and issuing weapons, equipment and ammunition for all branches of the military. During World War II, the Las Vegas Army Airfield and Tonopah Army Airfield were created from existing Nevada airports. In 1942, the military built four additional installations, including the Reno Army Airbase in the North Valleys area. 

Asbestos exposure is a significant factor in veterans’ deteriorating health 

While in the military, veterans worked and lived near asbestos products, unaware of the danger they represented. Airborne asbestos fibers form dust that may float in the air for hours due to the structure and size of the material’s particles. These microscopic threads are easy to inhale or ingest, and once inside the body, they permanently damage the tissue of major organs. 

Asbestos illnesses are difficult to diagnose due to their decades-long latency period between exposure and the first symptoms. Even if veterans haven’t experienced health problems during their service, they’ll have to deal with the consequences of having served in a contaminated environment upon diagnosis of asbestosis, mesothelioma or lung cancer. 

Veterans’ continuous struggle after asbestos exposure 

Although many years have passed since the military used asbestos, many veterans must deal with the harsh reality that service to their country held an enormous personal sacrifice. Besides affecting them physically and psychologically, asbestos diseases shorten their lives and steal precious time from their families.  

With Nevada ranking 14th among all states regarding the rate of new lung cancer cases and 34th in the country for deaths related to asbestosis, a signature condition of asbestos exposure, veterans should immediately engage in taking care of their health through: 

Periodic checkups: Inhaled asbestos fibers damage the lungs first, so former military personnel should take chest X-rays or CT scans and pulmonary function tests (also known as the breathing test) periodically. These imagistic tests help discover any damage caused by the asbestos fibers and are a diagnostic tool for benign and malignant asbestos-related diseases. 

Legal rights: Veterans who are sure they’ve worked with or around asbestos during their service, or suspect they’ve been exposed, must know their rights and options. Legal avenues and compensation programs are available to assist veterans injured by asbestos exposure. You can apply for compensation from asbestos trust funds and Veterans Affairs. Asbestos trust funds are a significant source of income for people harmed by occupational exposure, including former military personnel. These funds were set up by liable companies that entered bankruptcy protection and have approximately $37 billion currently available for future claimants. 

Raise awareness: Veterans can educate others about the risks of asbestos exposure by sharing their knowledge with their communities, especially fellow servicemen and women. By doing so, they can ensure that others who fought for our country are informed. 

By promoting awareness of asbestos exposure, we can protect our veterans’ well-being and ensure that those who defended our country receive the care and support they rightly deserve. 

Cristina Johnson is a Navy veteran advocate for Asbestos Ships, a nonprofit that aims to raise awareness and educate veterans about the dangers of asbestos exposure on Navy ships and assist them in navigating the VA claims process. Learn more at www.asbestos-ships.com.