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.

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, “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:

  • Carpentry
  • Construction
  • Demolition
  • Mining
  • Milling
  • Shipyards

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:

  • Flooring
  • Roofing
  • Cement
  • Pipes
  • Insulation
  • 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, for example, could be a huge risk factor for any unprotected troops in the area.

Troops who have participated in combat operations in the Middle Easts 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 but 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 of sorts.

“Asbestos exposure can cause a number of health effects. Whether a service member develops health effects as a result of 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.

 

5 Tips for Applying for VA Disability Benefits

There are some important steps to take when you apply for VA disability benefits. Some of them apply situationally, such as what to do if you have to start the application process from an overseas location.

Others are more universal, such as knowing what to do if you lose your DD Form 214, Report of Discharge, or the Guard/Reserve Equivalent.  When you prepare to make a claim with the VA you will need to collect your medical records from both military and civilian care providers and you may also need supporting evidence in the form of “buddy letters” from friends and family.

Here are some important tips that can help you better prepare for the application process and beyond.

5. Applying For VA Disability: Gather Your Medical Records

If you need to apply for VA compensation for a service-connected medical issue, your military medical records are one of the most obvious resources you must gather. But do you know how to access your records?

If you are retiring or separating from the United States military from a stateside location this issue is important, but for those doing so from an overseas military base, there is a greater sense of urgency. Why? Because it will be exponentially harder to obtain your records from an overseas location you cannot personally visit once you have retired or separated.

If you cannot hand-carry your military medical records from an overseas location it may be necessary to make arrangements to have those records submitted to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Some overseas bases or forward-deployed locations may not have the same resources that larger installations do; if your resources are limited, check with your First Sergeant, Command Sergeant Major, Detailer, or command support staff to learn your options in this area.

Equally important? Gathering your non-military medical records for any care you received during your commission or enlistment. Such records may provide supporting documentation you can use to reinforce your claim. Don’t make the mistake of thinking the Department of Veterans Affairs only wants your military medical records. Any supporting evidence can be used toward your claim.

4. Collect More Supporting Evidence

Some also mistakenly believe that medical records are the only documents that can support your claim with the VA. This is NOT true; the Department of Veterans Affairs encourages those filing medical claims to include a variety of information including letters from a care provider that explain your condition and how it has affected your day-to-day life.

And letters from a doctor are not the only ones that you can submit. Have you ever heard of a “buddy letter”? This is something you can request from friends, family, and co-workers. Your buddy letter should include a brief explanation of how long you have known the letter writer, the nature of your relationship, and other relevant information.

But most importantly, the buddy letter should include specific and detailed information about how your medical issue has affected your life, any changes the letter writer has noticed since the injury, illness, or incident, and any other relevant observations along those lines.

Buddy letters help the VA claims reviewer to find a human side to the medical records and other data; never underestimate the power of an emotional testimony in writing to help your cause.

3. Safeguard Your Records

More people lose their official documents (including discharge paperwork) than you might think. One of the biggest causes? Your last permanent change of station move out of your final assignment and to your home of record or elsewhere.

It’s very easy to misplace the single-page Report of Discharge (DD Form 214 for active-duty servicemembers) and if you cannot locate this crucial paperwork, you’ll have to apply to get a replacement. At one time it was necessary to apply for this via the National Archives, a process that can take months. If you are trying to make a deadline or get your claim reviewed in a timely manner, that delay could be a complicating factor.

Today, servicemembers have the option of requesting a replacement Report of Discharge online via MilConnect. This is an option for those who have a Premium DSLogon account. You can learn more about setting up such an account at the VA official site.

To protect your military records it is a smart idea to digitally scan your DD Form 214 and save it online or on your device, then print out for use when submitting your claim.

2. Refresh Your Memory

Part of the claims process with the Department of Veterans Affairs is listing out all the medical issues you want to claim in as much detail as possible. It is typically not an effective approach to simply walk into that process and try to do it all from memory. It helps to list out the conditions you want to claim in advance and then have a good look at your medical records to make certain you have not forgotten anything.

A head injury you had ten years ago might not be as fresh in your mind as a more recent illness or injury. Review your records and don’t forget to include a review of any supporting evidence such as the records from a civilian care provider.

When it comes to a medical claim, no detail is too small. You never know what may or may not be relevant to the claims reviewer, so it’s best to include any information about the condition you’ve experienced no matter how trivial it might seem.

1. Know The Process

By this, we mean understanding how the VA assigns disability ratings for various conditions. For example, did you know some medical conditions reviewed during the VA claims process have a cap or limit on the percentage of disability assigned? For example, if you have tinnitus and the VA awards you a disability claim for that condition, your rating will typically be limited to 10% no matter how severe the condition is.

Compare that to the VA rating for amputation of an entire arm, which may be awarded up to 100%. The loss of a single hand could be rated as high as 70% but not 100%. Amputation is rated differently than “loss of use”.

These nuances are good to know when considering your VA medical claims application. It’s also a good idea to learn what the VA will approve from your claim and make plans from there. It’s a bad idea to start counting your potential disability benefits pay too early–don’t count on that as income until you have been awarded a disability percentage from the VA on a formal basis.

The claims review process takes time, and some who apply may feel they are up against an external deadline, such as when buying a home with your VA loan benefits. If you have a VA disability rating, you may be exempt from paying the VA Loan Funding Fee, which can run into the thousands of dollars.

But those who await a VA decision on their claim can’t use that exemption until it is an official part of their military records. It’s a bad idea to pin hopes that a VA claim will be approved soon enough to beat a deadline for a loan for that exemption. Chances are good the process will take longer than you realize. The good news in this particular situation is that you can apply for a refund for the VA loan funding fee once your VA claim has been approved.

 

 

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