LILBURN, Ga. -- William Burton knows he's been carrying asbestos fibers in his lungs for more than five decades, going back to World War II when he was serving in the U.S. Navy.
He wants to warn some of his old shipmates that they, too, were exposed to the fibers that have the potential to kill them.
"A lot of these guys have asbestos in their lungs and don't even realize it," said Mr. Burton, 72, a native of Columbus now living in the Atlanta suburb of Lilburn. "What I want to do is make them aware of it and do what I can to get legislation enacted so that they can get service-connected disability for the problem."
Mr. Burton has been writing members of Congress, the Department of Veterans Affairs and veterans groups about the asbestos risk.
He also is working with veterans who may have been exposed to asbestos to guide them through the often confusing and complicated process of evaluation by doctors and claims for compensation from Veterans Affairs.
Mr. Burton served with the U.S. Navy Armed Guard, a unit that guarded troop transports, tankers and supply ships from enemy submarines and aircraft.
Virtually all those ships were constructed with large amounts of asbestos, which was used as a fire retardant and as insulation, according to Donald Krispin, an attorney with the Jacques admiralty law firm of Detroit.
The firm represents more than 25,000 merchant mariners and sailors in asbestos-related lawsuits dating from World War II to the present.
"Whether they were working with (asbestos) or sleeping in the vessel, they were susceptible," said Mr. Krispin, who estimates 600,000 merchant mariners were exposed to asbestos during the war, plus an untold number of sailors and shipyard workers.
VA officials say it is impossible to determine how many servicemen might have been exposed to asbestos without going back through all individual records of service to determine what type of jobs they had and where they served.
"Certain manufacturers conspired to cover up information about the hazards rather than taking a pro-active role. Instead of issuing warnings they did just the opposite," Mr. Krispin said.
Mr. Burton was diagnosed with asbestosis, an irreversible lung disease brought on by prolonged exposure to asbestos.
He believes that the three cases of pneumonia he had during the war, and numerous other bouts with the illness since then, are a result of asbestos exposure.
Mr. Burton said he can remember seeing fibers flaking off asbestos that covered boilers and pipes during his 32 months of sea duty.
"We breathed the stuff every day. It was in the air and in our food but we had no idea at the time it could kill us," he said.