Lung cancer rates in navy veterans due to asbestos in ships

New research suggests asbestos has played a big part in elevated cases of lung cancer among naval veterans who served in the 1950s and 60s in Britain and Australia.

The rates of lung cancer among their veterans exceed those of other military personnel and are consistent with research into other navies, such as those in the US.

The new study was prepared by former Australian parliamentarian and semiretired University of Adelaide GP, Dr Richie Gun, and Oxford University cancer researcher Dr Gerry Kendall.

A black and white photo of a naval ship in harbour.
HMAS Culgoa. Credit: Courtesy Newcastle Morning Herald, Miners Advocate and National Library Australia. Supplied by University of Adelaide.

Their research emerged from several studies conducted into the effects of radiation exposure on British and Australian military personnel from outback nuclear testing in the 1950s.

Investigation of one Australian and two British cohorts involved in those tests found heightened rates of lung cancer that couldn’t be attributed to radiation exposure. A separate study into Australian veterans of the Korean War was also used as a comparison.

All four cohorts had elevated incidence of mesothelioma – a cancer often caused by asbestos exposure – among naval veterans, though this was not statistically significant among Korean War sailors. Lung cancers were also higher in British and Australian naval personnel involved in nuclear testing.

Rates of heart disease and pulmonary disease were also similar between naval and army personnel, suggesting that smoking wasn’t a cause of higher lung cancer rates among sailors. The rate of mesothelioma among naval personnel was also comparable to the most at-risk occupations.

Gun and Kendall originally decided to dig into the data of their nations’ previous studies to try and attribute a cause for lung cancer.

“We weren’t looking for asbestos and looking for radiation effects, but we did notice this excess of mesotheliomas,” says Gun.

Asbestos-containing materials (ACM) have been used in ship construction for decades, with the removal of such components beginning in the 1970s. The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea was amended to prohibit the installation of ACMs in 2002, though some ships – both military and civil – may still contain such items.

“With lung cancer – unlike mesothelioma where almost all cases are caused by asbestos and smoking – the main cause is cigarette smoking,” says Dr Gun.

“So what we had to do is try and detect whether there’s any excess that could be attributable to asbestos exposure.”

“If you compare sailors with people in the army both in Britain and Australia, we found an excess of lung cancer, which we think is reasonably attributable to asbestos exposure.”

In all, records of more than 30,000 service people were assessed by Gun and Kendall. Their modelling estimates that asbestos exposure was the cause of around a quarter of Australian and an eighth of British naval lung cancers.

The Australian Department of Veterans’ Affairs operates a Non-Liability Health Care scheme that covers treatment costs for cancer and pulmonary tuberculosis, irrespective of whether defence service was the cause of the disease.

Cosmos has approached the Australian Defence for comment.

Support cosmos today

Cosmos is a not-for-profit science newsroom that provides free access to thousands of stories, podcasts and videos every year. Help us keep it that way. Support our work today.

Please login to favourite this article.