Asbestos & Navy Vessels

Until the 1970s, asbestos was used on almost all of the military ships in the U.S. Navy. Its amazing strength and its unique heat-resistance qualities meant that asbestos found its way into nearly every part of a vessel.

Today, we know asbestos is a dangerous substance. Exposure to asbestos can be a serious risk to health if asbestos-containing material is disturbed and released into the air. Once asbestos becomes airborne, it is easy to inhale or ingest the tiny needle-sharp fibers and dust. Asbestos is the cause of the deadly cancer mesothelioma and of other life-threatening diseases.

Navy veterans are particularly at risk for mesothelioma because asbestos-containing material was often used below decks where ventilation was poor. Recent scientific evidence suggests that the length and intensity of asbestos exposure can impact one’s chances of developing mesothelioma or other asbestos-related diseases such as asbestosis.

Brief History of Asbestos in the Navy

Manufacturers used asbestos in a wide range of products—more than 3,000 of them. According to the U.S. Navy, hundreds of products containing asbestos were used regularly in the shipbuilding process.

Naval vessels typically contained asbestos materials as fireproofing in areas such as the boiler and engine rooms and other below-deck areas. However, asbestos-containing products could also be found in areas such as mess halls and sleeping quarters.

The military’s use of asbestos continued into the 1970s until the health dangers of asbestos became widely known and the federal government sought to regulate asbestos-containing materials. However, some asbestos-containing products were still approved for onboard use.

Health Risks

Typically, the asbestos-containing products used onboard ships served to insulate and to provide fireproof alternatives to previous materials. Some applications included pipe covering to insulate hot steam pipes, hot water lines, and fuel lines. Frequently, products made with asbestos coated underwater hatches and boilers as well as doors on the deck.

Asbestos could also be found on ships in the following:

  • Brakes
  • Boilers
  • Gaskets
  • Valves
  • Cements
  • Adhesives
  • Flooring
  • Lagging

Health Risks

U.S. Navy veterans have a high incidence of asbestos-related diseases as a consequence of the amount of asbestos used both in shipyards and aboard naval vessels. This greatly increased their risk for mesothelioma and other diseases caused by asbestos exposure.

Asbestos affects the health of naval veterans in a variety of ways, depending on how long the exposure lasted. It also depends on how the asbestos entered the veteran’s system. Different jobs in the Navy caused different types of exposure. Some of the high-risk jobs included ship fitters, machinists, pipe fitters, pipe coverers, boiler makers, electricians, welders, riggers, and engineers.

The resulting conditions include the following:

  • Thickening of the pleural region of the lungs. These and other conditions are caused by asbestos fibers becoming lodged in the pleura. The resultant lung scarring can spread throughout the area.
  • Asbestosis, caused by the scarring that occurs in the lungs. The damage can prevent the lungs’ normal expansion and contraction.
  • Mesothelioma, which is a rare form of incurable cancer.

The number of mesothelioma cases is relatively low compared to that of other cancers. However, the high fatality rate makes it a serious health threat for U.S. Navy veterans. Along with the victims of the cancer who have been diagnosed after direct exposure, there are also many individuals who have gone on to develop the disease after indirect exposure. Regardless of the form of exposure, all asbestos contact should be avoided, as we have learned from veterans who served on these contaminated ships.