Shipyards are facilities where a number of manufacturing and installation operations are conducted on the same site location. This is because once a keel is laid, the entire ship is completed at one spot and this involves steel and iron plating, superstructure building, plumbing, painting, cementing, welding and electrical work. During the past century shipyards have been extremely busy places because of the construction and repair of naval vessels employed during both World Wars, the Korean conflict, Vietnam and more recently the naval involvement in the Middle East and Persian Gulf.
Until the last two decades, workers at these busy facilities were constantly exposed to a simple compound known as asbestos, one of the most widely used materials in the shipbuilding industry. Asbestos is known to cause a variety of illnesses, the most deadly being the cancerous mesothelioma.
Workers at shipyards were exposed to asbestos on a daily basis, because the material was used for insulation of boilers, ceilings and tiles, steam pipes and even the decks of the vessels. Asbestos can be easily mixed with paint, cement, and other chemicals including wire coverings. Asbestos does not burn, does not conduct heat and will protect the nearby environment from extreme temperatures. Shipyard workers often mixed wet asbestos with a light cement and applied it directly to the plumbing pipes, around turbines and water pumps, and smoothed concrete containing asbestos onto flooring and decks. This made ocean-going vessels practically fireproof, but at the same would sicken thousands of people.
Workers at shipyards were often covered in asbestos dust, which contained billions of loose, microscopic fibers that were easily inhaled or swallowed. Years later these employees would show symptoms of benign or malignant growths in the lungs, stomach or intestines. By the 1980s the dangers of long-term exposure to asbestos were widely enough known that the use of this material was being banned from most industrial applications.
Tiny asbestos fibers are a form of magnesium silicate, and they can settle into the pleural lining of the lungs and remain in latency for many years. Acting as a carcinogen, asbestos fibers eventually disrupt the normal pleural tissue and a cancerous growth can spread, sometimes resulting in the fatal disease mesothelioma. Those who previously worked at shipyards often carried these fibers in their lungs for decades before the onset of illness, and even today there may be thousands of former workers who are not yet showing signs of mesothelioma or other cancers caused by asbestos exposure.