Submarines and Asbestos

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A submarine is a type of vessel that travels underwater to avoid contact with enemies on the surface. Though they are not boats in the traditional sense, they are still called that because subs used to be deployed from vessels that were called boats, and the nickname stuck. A submarine usually refers to large vessels, but it can also refer to medium or small ones as well.

Since these boats spend most of their time underwater, they must be totally enclosed and confined. Being confined and isolated was both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, they kept out of sight of the enemy. On the other, sailors were defenseless against threats that may have been lurking inside the ship itself. One of these serious dangers to sailors and shipbuilders was the heavy use of a mineral called asbestos.

Asbestos Exposure

Though many sailors feared enemy combatants, a greater danger was an onboard fire. Fires were serious problems for all ships, but the danger was heightened in the enclosed, underwater environment of the submarine. Thus, subs were stuffed full of asbestos to help lower fire risks. Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that resists heat and flame. It was used in places like steam pipes and boilers to help prevent the outbreak and spread of fires. However, these minerals also create an unseen danger as they shed fibers that float in the air. When breathed in, these fibers can cause serious health problems over time. The crew members and builders of these subs were literally enclosed with asbestos, spending months or years continuously breathing in the fibers.

Those who lived and worked on submarines were not given any safety equipment to guard themselves against these dangerous fibers, in part because few knew the dangers of the substance at the time. Every submarine and ship was different, so those who served on specific submarines may have been exposed to different levels of the substance. This continuous exposure has been linked to the development of deadly diseases like asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma. Those who repaired submarines also faced heavy exposure to the substance and a higher risk of developing this deadly disease.


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