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Opinion: Toxic Exposure May Impact Veterans’ Health Even Today

By Cristina Johnson 

Military service members spend years in hazardous environments unknowingly, often developing fatal illnesses decades after their service. Routine exposure to harmful toxins is the culprit of today’s growing number of toxic exposure cases among our veterans. All five military branches utilized contaminated products to various degrees, putting service members’ health at significant risk.

One of the contaminants causing former service members’ life-altering diseases is asbestos. The toxic mineral was prevalent in the U.S. armed forces during the last century, as the WWII war effort demanded accessible materials for producing military equipment quickly and in large amounts. California’s large veteran community was at a significantly high risk of asbestos exposure, as the material was used for insulation in vehicles, tools, barracks, aircraft, ships, and shipyards. It makes exposure to this toxic material an ongoing worry for all former service members, including those among Los Angeles County’sLos Angeles City’s, and Culver City’s veteran population. 

Even though the Navy exploited asbestos the most, and Navy personnel serving onboard naval vessels built before the 1980s were at an outstandingly high risk of asbestos exposure, this doesn’t exclude other military installations from being a potential source of asbestos contamination. Toxic contaminants represent health and environmental risks on military sites, and exposure to these hazardous substances is a severe issue requiring more attention, investigation, and, in most cases, immediate action after discovery.

California has more military facilities than other states, some serving every armed forces branch, and toxic exposure was a grim reality for everyone stationed at military bases throughout the state. Los Angeles County has a rich military installation history, but LA AFB is the only active duty installation today, serving all Air Force personnel in Greater Los Angeles. The base also serves Army, Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard personnel in the surrounding area. However, Los Angeles County also hosts the southern arm of Edwards Air Force Base, known for its high levels of toxic contamination.

Asbestos exposure was one of the lurking health risks onboard Navy ships.

Ships needed insulation from bow to stern, and in its necessity for a versatile and cheap insulant, the Navy mandated using asbestos in building its vessels. It is how, during the service years, veterans worked and lived near asbestos materials, unaware of the danger they represented. Asbestos can remain in the air for hours due to the structure and size of its fibers. The microscopic particles are easily inhaled or ingested, making asbestos dust one of the most toxic substances humans have ever encountered. Once inside the body, these tiny sharp threads injure major organs permanently and lead to devastating diseases. 

One of the most terrible aspects of asbestos-related diseases is the decades-long latency period between exposure and the first symptoms. Even if veterans may have had no health issues during their service, they’ll learn the effects of asbestos exposure only over time when they are diagnosed with conditions stemming from it, like asbestosis, mesothelioma, lung cancer, or other severe respiratory conditions.

Veterans’ ongoing fight for health and well-being: 

Although decades may have passed since the military years, those veterans who were in contact with toxic materials like asbestos during service now have to fight for their health. Unfortunately, many must come to terms with the fact that their service-related diseases will shorten their life. 

With California ranking first in the U.S. for mesothelioma and asbestosis deaths, veterans should make an appointment with the doctor as soon as possible.  Given that early detection can improve treatment outcomes and prolong life expectancy, they should be proactive about their health by taking the following actions:

Scheduling regular medical examinations: Periodic check-ups and an open discussion about military service and possible toxic exposure are essential. When dealing with asbestos diseases, imagistic tests like chest X-rays or CT scans and pulmonary function (breathing) tests are crucial in diagnosing benign and malignant asbestos-related diseases.

Learning about their legal rights: Veterans who know they’ve worked in contaminated environments during their service or who suspect they were exposed should gather information about their rights and options. Legal avenues and compensation programs are available to help vets affected by toxic exposure. Those affected by asbestos exposure may be compensated through asbestos trust funds and VA disability benefits.

Promoting awareness: Veterans can play a central role in educating and raising awareness by sharing their knowledge and experiences about toxic exposure. By doing so, they can ensure that others who protected our nation are informed.

Cristina Johnson is a Navy veteran advocate for Asbestos Ships Organization, a nonprofit whose primary mission is to raise awareness and educate veterans about the dangers of asbestos exposure on Navy ships and assist them in navigating the VA claims process.

in Opinion
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