The only shipyard and ship repair facility operated by the U.S. Coast Guard, the Curtis Bay Coast Guard Yard in Baltimore, Maryland, was founded in 1899 by the Revenue Cutter Service. In 1905, Congress purchased the land and permanently established the shipyard. Ten years later, when the Revenue Cutter Service joined the Lifesaving Service to form the Coast Guard, the Curtis Bay shipyard was used as a training site for the newest gasoline-powered engines.
Workers at the shipyard built and repaired Navy ships during World War I, but the expanded production continued after the war and through the 1920s. The yard employed 500 people, civilians and soldiers alike, and was known throughout the U.S. for its high-quality work. By the 1930s, many of the facilities and machines had become outdated, but the demand for ships at the outbreak of World War II brought extensive modernizations.
Unfortunately, these renovations would ultimately prove toxic to the workers’ health. Because of the extreme temperatures of a boiler room and the threat of torpedoes or bombs, fire aboard a ship at sea was a very real threat. To counteract this, insulating and fireproofing materials containing large amounts of asbestos were installed in the ships, as well as in the shipbuilding facilities and equipment. When this asbestos was contained in other materials, it was not harmful, but when the materials were cut or otherwise manipulated – as happens when the materials are used to build a ship – deadly fibers were released into the air. Rarely were workers given any protective gear to prevent them from inhaling these fibers.
Both shipyard workers and Navy veterans show increased rates of mesothelioma, a fatal type of cancer whose major cause is exposure to asbestos. While no level of exposure is deemed to be safe, repeated exposure over many years increases the number of asbestos fibers that build up in the tissue of the body, greatly increasing the risk of asbestos-related diseases. While conditions like pleural plaques and asbestosis are far more common, mesothelioma is deadlier, killing most sufferers between eight and fourteen months after exposure.
In the 1970s, the dangers of asbestos began to become widely known, and the deadly substance was replaced in most materials with safer alternatives like fiberglass. Work at the Curtis Bay Coast Guard Yard continues to this day, though in the past few decades it has focused on projects like lighted buoys, oil skimmers, and ship renovations. While today’s shipyard workers are no longer at such a high level of risk as their predecessors, asbestos can still be found in many older Navy ships, and must be very carefully handled during renovations.