Asbestos in the Coast Guard

Most members of the Coast Guard are aware that defending the borders of the United States of America involves risks that can put their life at stake. However, many have found that the risks do not simply stem from the threat posed by enemies of the U.S., but also from an unexpected, preventable source: asbestos. It is primarily in one particular Coast Guard facility where asbestos exposure risks were the highest and account for the majority of mesothelioma cases in this branch of the military.

Exposure

Located near Baltimore, Maryland, the Curtis Bay Coast Guard Yard is the only shipbuilding site operated by the U.S. Coast Guard, and it is also their primary repair facility. The history of “The Yard,” as it is informally known, began in 1899 when it was founded as a training academy for new cadets. Only 11 years later, in 1910, it was converted into the shipbuilding and repair site it remains today. The facility is 113 acres in size and is an important industrial support center for this military branch. The Yard reached its peak operations during the years of World War II, with over 3,000 employees working onsite.

Before the strict asbestos regulations were put into effect in the 1980s, The Yard used many asbestos-containing products. In fact, it was difficult to work in an area of the facility where asbestos was not present in one form or another. The different materials and pieces either made completely of asbestos or containing asbestos fibers includes the following:

  • Boiler room equipment
  • Electrical insulation
  • Gaskets
  • Plumbing/pipe insulation
  • Pumps
  • Standard multipurpose cloth
  • Turbines
  • Welding drops or blankets

Outcomes

All individuals working at the shipyard from the time it opened until the mid 1980s were at risk of asbestos exposure. Even if a worker did not directly handle asbestos or asbestos-containing products, the tiny fibers from the products move throughout the air and can easily spread. However, even after asbestos regulations were put into place and the clean-up of asbestos began, it didn’t necessarily render The Yard asbestos-free. The fibers can settle in small openings, remaining there for years, only to be blown into the air again later.

Besides this facility, Members of the Coast Guard risked heavy asbestos exposure through the frequent use of ships that contained this material. In addition, all military members shared the risk of exposure to asbestos due to the fact that so many military products contained this material. According to some estimates, as many as 30 percent of individuals diagnosed with mesothelioma served in a branch of the military at one time or another.