From World War II to around 1970, many veterans who served in the U.S. Navy were exposed to asbestos. Navy ships can withstand great amounts of force, with construction that made them virtually indestructible. However, in large part, this strength came from the use of asbestos as a major component in ship construction.
Asbestos resists heat and chemicals and is amazingly strong, which made it seem like a miracle material for shipbuilding purposes. As a result, this toxic material found its way into hundreds of products used onboard military ships. Asbestos had so many advantages, it appeared nothing could replace it.
The U.S. Navy used asbestos extensively in both its ships and shipyards until the mid 1970s. However, asbestos is the cause of the mesothelioma, a lethal cancer, as well as other life-threatening diseases such as asbestosis and lung cancer.
As the public health threat posed by asbestos became apparent, the federal government sought to regulate asbestos. Eventually, the Navy began an abatement program to remove asbestos from its vessels. However, some products that contained asbestos were still approved for on board use.
Asbestos on Board
For decades, nearly all naval vessels built contained asbestos for safety reasons. Back in the 1930s, Congress passed regulations that required the use of fire-retardant materials in all shipbuilding. The requirement was the result of a tragic fire aboard a passenger liner, the SS Moro Castle, in which more than 100 people died.
Although products with asbestos could be found all over Navy vessels constructed prior to the 1970s, some sections had greater concentrations of it. For instance, the engine room and boiler rooms were full of asbestos-containing products. It could also be found in the pump room and damage control room.
However, asbestos-containing products could also be found other areas such as mess halls and sleeping quarters.
Some applications included pipe covering — or lagging — to insulate hot steam pipes, hot water lines, and fuel lines. It was also present in gaskets, valves, cements, adhesives, and floor tiles.
Shipyard Asbestos Exposure
Not just those who served aboard Navy vessels faced asbestos exposure. Shipyard workers who built, repaired, or decommissioned vessels also faced the risk of asbestos exposure. In the massive buildup of ships during World War II, tens of thousands of workers were exposed as they cut asbestos insulation or removed it.
There was also the danger of secondhand asbestos exposure. Asbestos fibers often lodged in the hair and clothes of shipyard workers and remained there. The wives and children of these workers could potentially develop mesothelioma from the fibers released in their homes this way.
As early as 1950, many industries knew about the dangerous effects of asbestos exposure. However, they chose not to warn and protect their workers from this deadly material. As a result, thousands of U.S. Navy veterans and shipyard workers are at risk for developing mesothelioma – from asbestos exposure that they may not even know occurred.
The best hope for at-risk veterans and workers is to have a complete physical examination. They must explain to doctors, in detail, all military working conditions they experienced. While there is no cure for mesothelioma, chemotherapy and radiation treatments can help alleviate many of the disease’s symptoms.