Merchant Marines and Asbestos Exposure

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Established 200 years ago as a way to trade with Europe, the Merchant Marines have assisted during times of war and natural disaster by carrying equipment, ammunition and troops during the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Operation Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Restore Hope in Somalia, to name just a few. Many civilian Mariners were awarded the Merchant Marine Expeditionary Medal for their assistance during the Iraq War. They have also provided humanitarian assistance in times of natural disaster such as Hurricane Mitch in Central America and Hurricane Katrina in the United States.

The United States Merchant Marine fleet consists of U.S. built, owned and crewed vessels and ships. The top types of vessels are cargo, bulk, container and petroleum ships, as well as passenger and cargo ships, vehicle carriers, chemical tankers, dredges, ferries, towboats and tugboats. Merchant ships are maintained by private individuals or the government. All are used to transport imports and exports during peacetime.

While made up of civilians, a merchant ship is operated by a captain, crew and mates, just like in the Navy. This civilian fleet becomes a Navy auxiliary during wartime and may be used to transport military supplies or troops. Officers are commissioned into the U.S. Maritime Service and those who serve during wartime are considered U.S. veterans.

In 2006, the total number of American Merchant Marine vessels was 465. They were manned and operated by approximately 69,000 sailors, or mariners. In addition to oceans, mariners sail on rivers, harbors, canals and the Great Lakes.

During the 1940s and 1950s, asbestos was often used in the insulation of boats as an extra safety precaution against flames and electrical fires. It was extremely light with fireproof qualities which made it an excellent safety factor. However, if the sealant or other asbestos-containing materials became damaged and fibers were released into the air, they could drift anywhere on board and become inhaled or ingested by the crew. Asbestos fibers can become imbedded in human tissue and remain inside the sailor’s body for decades, causing serious damage and conditions such as mesothelioma, asbestosis and cancers of the lungs, heart and abdomen.


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