These days most people are aware of the danger of working with asbestos products or living near areas where they would encounter contaminated dust or debris. This was not the case during World War II, however, as more ships were being produced to support the U.S. Navy’s action in the war.
In New York, the Caddell Dry Dock and Repair constructed and repaired many ships for the war effort. The use of asbestos increased proportionately, as there were many uses for the substance in ship building and repair. Asbestos was used because it is moisture resistant, accommodates high temperatures and retains its shape and properties. It was used for everything from fireproofing and rust-proofing to coating boilers and insulating electrical wires.
Because of the large volume of ship building and repair performed at Caddell Dry Dock and Repair, a vast amount of asbestos dust was prevalent, and an unusually large number of people were exposed to asbestos and asbestos products. Those who must work with or near asbestos today wear protective clothing and face masks, but since the exposure risk was unknown at the time, no workers or crew members at Caddell Dry Dock were protected.
As a result of all the ship building and repair, the asbestos exposure level increased to unprecedented proportions, which created health risks not yet recognized. Workers who built and repaired the ships, crew members on board, and even longshoremen who loaded and unloaded ships were all exposed to the deadly substance. When asbestos is worked with or disturbed, it sends tiny fibers into the air that are inhaled and drawn into the lungs. The needle-thin particles burrow into the lining of the lungs, heart, abdomen, or other organs, where they cause a particularly deadly form of cancer called mesothelioma. Family members of anyone who worked with or near asbestos were also exposed, as the fibers clung to clothing and were carried home to the loved ones of the unsuspecting people who handled it.
Because mesothelioma occurs after exposure to asbestos and grows silently, it is usually far advanced by the time it is diagnosed. While there are cases of survival if it happens to be caught very early, the prognosis is not good for most patients. There are few options for doctors and patients once late-stage mesothelioma is diagnosed.