Veterans Asbestos Exposure and VA Policy
Asbestos exposure related to military service is a serious issue. There are many ways to become exposed. Some military career fields have an elevated risk of asbestos exposure, and some types of military duty put troops at risk. Some are exposed and never develop a medical problem, while others may develop cancer, mesothelioma, or other health complications.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has resources available for those who may be at risk for health complications due to military service including asbestos-related conditions. What do you need to know about the condition and how to make a VA claim?
What Is Asbestos?
Believe it or not, asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral, not a man-made synthetic. Asbestos is a catch-all name for materials in a variety of fibrous mineral types but the consistent feature among those types is their heat resistance, making it good for certain types of products including brake pads, roofing and other construction materials, fabrics, and more. Asbestos was eventually banned from construction materials and the Environmental Protection Agency issued a Final Rule in the late 1980s banning most uses.
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What About the Asbestos Ban?
Some might wonder why we write about asbestos exposure in the 21st century. Wasn’t the substance banned by the EPA as mentioned above? Isn’t asbestos a thing of the past?
No. Asbestos is still present in old buildings that have not had any remediation, it is present in certain manufactured products, and it is an ongoing issue for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The Federal Register contains notices about federal law regarding asbestos. Some are shocked to learn that in spite of the EPA issuing a ban on “most uses” of asbestos in 1989, that ban did not last long. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned it in New Orleans in 1990.
This ruling means that the 1989 asbestos regulation is only effective for what the EPA official site says are “new uses of asbestos in products that would be initiated for the first time after 1989”. The Circuit Court ruling did maintain or initiate a ban on certain asbestos-containing products. The EPA official site lists flooring felt, rollboard, plus “corrugated, commercial, or specialty paper.”
Who Is at Risk For Asbestos Exposure in the Military?
The Centers For Disease Control official site says asbestos exposure typically happens “by breathing contaminated air in workplaces that make or use asbestos.” Furthermore, the CDC reminds us, “Asbestos is also found in the air of buildings containing asbestos that are being torn down or renovated.”
Some types of military duty may have higher risks than others. For example, the VA advises those who work in any of the following fields they may be at elevated risk:
The VA advises you to get tested if you work in any of the above fields or if you have worked with products such as any of the following:
- Clutch facings
- Brake linings
But these fields and products aren’t the only risk factors. Those who serve in combat zones where asbestos has been used in the local construction could be exposed when those buildings are damaged or destroyed in combat. Asbestos, made airborne by an explosion, could be a huge risk factor for any unprotected troops in the area.
Troops who have participated in combat operations in the Middle East or Southwest Asia may have been exposed in just this way. There is no way to definitively know how much risk is present in a given theater of operations. Still, the Department of Veterans Affairs has a “presumptive conditions” policy in such cases that may assume exposure occurred based on the theater of operations and the nature of the operations there. Much depends on the condition, circumstances, and other variables.
How The Department of Veterans Affairs Defines Asbestos Exposure
The VA official site begins the discussion of the asbestos issue with a disclaimer.
“Asbestos exposure can cause a number of health effects. Whether a service member develops health effects from their asbestos exposure depends on several factors such as how much substance an individual was exposed to and for how long or whether or not that person had a pre-existing condition.”
The pre-existing condition issue is key; you may not be approved for a VA disability rating associated with asbestos if you had a pre-existing condition tied to your current medical issues.
When reviewing this information it is important to remember that the VA does not compensate people for asbestos exposure itself, but rather for associated health effects from that exposure. Working around or with hazardous materials is not an automatic path to a VA disability rating; those who develop health issues as a result of doing so must file VA claims for specific medical issues including:
- Asbestosis, described by the VA as, “scarring of lung tissue” that results in difficulty breathing or other issues.
- Pleural plaques, which the VA describes as, “scarring in the inner surface of the ribcage and area surrounding the lungs”.
- Lung cancer
- Mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining surrounding the lung or abdominal cavity.
If you were exposed to asbestos during military service, it’s crucial to be screened for these medical issues. If you develop or already have symptoms you may be eligible to apply for VA compensation but you must have a military discharge not characterized as Dishonorable.
What to Know About Asbestos Exposure
You can be tested for asbestos-related issues. The CDC reminds that asbestos fibers can be detected in a variety of ways including tests of urine, feces, or “lung washings”. The CDC advises, “Higher than average levels of asbestos fibers in tissue can confirm exposure but not determine whether you will experience any health effects.”
You will need to provide a comprehensive health history, undergo an examination, and go through testing to evaluate a potential asbestos-related condition. Some believe chest x-rays are the most effective screening option for certain types of conditions, but CAT scans and lung function testing are also options.
Smoking is an issue that can directly affect your health when dealing with asbestos exposure. The majority of government agencies offering advice on these medical issues agree; smoking can aggravate or complicate an asbestos-related condition.
Filing a Claim with the VA
Have you been diagnosed with an asbestos-related condition? Do you need to file a claim for suspected asbestos-related issues? This process is the same as filing any other claim for VA compensation for service-connected medical issues. You will need to describe your symptoms, show records of any treatment or diagnosis, you may be required to undergo a VA screening for the symptoms or conditions you report, and you will be required to get a medical statement from a doctor who agrees there is a connection between your condition and your military service.
One crucial part of your claim? Something called a “buddy letter”. This is documentation you gather from friends and family members; basically, you want a letter explaining what your friend or a family member has observed related to how your medical issues affect your quality of life, your ability to work, etc.
You should gather as many of these as necessary to reinforce your claim.
If you are currently serving, it may be a good idea to seek a second opinion from a civilian healthcare provider in addition to any evidence you already have in your medical records. This is crucial in cases where there may be ambiguity in the diagnosis or you are worried there may be ambiguity. A second opinion can go a long way toward helping your cause. That said, there are no guarantees, much depends on the outcome of your second opinion. You also have the ability to seek a second opinion from a military medical provider rather than a civilian one.
Serious health issues take time to diagnose and your journey toward VA compensation may take longer than you realize. Start as early as you can, especially in gathering your supporting documents.
About the author
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter/editor for Air Force Television News and the Pentagon Channel. His freelance work includes contract work for Motorola, VALoans.com, and Credit Karma. He is co-founder of Dim Art House in Springfield, Illinois, and spends his non-writing time as an abstract painter, independent publisher, and occasional filmmaker.