Asbestos is a fibrous material that was commonly used in the military due to its strength and heat and fire resistance. Today, shipbuilding technology is advanced, but before the 1970s many navy ships were built with asbestos. This was dangerous not only for shipyard workers but also for the sailors themselves.
Asbestos in Navy Ships Explained
Asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) were used on every United States Navy ship built between 1930-1970. Most servicemen and women would have come into contact with asbestos. How extensively this carcinogenic substance was used is still not fully known, but what we do understand is that ACMs were used during almost every step of the shipbuilding process.
The U.S. Navy has over 325,000 active-service personnel supported by 107,000 naval reservists. The dangers of asbestos are much lessened today as most asbestos-containing ships were decommissioned at the end of World War II and either converted to merchant’s vessels or sold as scrap. Therefore, anyone entering the Navy from 1970 onwards would, most likely, not have come into contact with asbestos.
Asbestos Remained in Navy Shipyards
Asbestos remained in shipyards until the mid-1990s, meaning that those who worked in the shipyards or docked vessels there may have also come into contact with the substance for years after it stopped being used in the ships themselves.
When asbestos breaks down, it can become friable, easily inhaled and lead to diseases such as mesothelioma and other cancers. Mesothelioma can take up to 50 years to develop, meaning that countless veterans could yet develop diseases from their exposure to asbestos during their service in the Navy.
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How Asbestos in Navy Ships Was Used
The U.S. Navy used ACMs due to the strength and versatility that asbestos provided. Asbestos is heat-resistant, resilient against fire and excellent for insulation. As a result, it was added to a large number of construction materials when building naval ships.
Asbestos in Navy ships was also used to insulate:
Asbestos in Navy Ships was also used below deck for fire safety purposes. Just about every aspect of a ship contained asbestos—yet it only became dangerous when disturbed. Anyone who worked directly with asbestos, such as in the boiler rooms, maintaining the ships or fitting new floor and ceiling tiles, would be at more risk of developing mesothelioma than most.
Top Navy Ships Containing Asbestos
Many classes of Navy ships used asbestos, and therefore exposed veterans to the carcinogenic substance.
Some of the classes of Navy ships that were constructed with asbestos include:
Aircraft carriers were an essential part of the U.S. Navy during World War II. Home to thousands of Navy personnel, each carrier also contained large quantities of asbestos. It was used on aircraft carriers for pipe, boiler and electrical insulation, and also to protect against fire. The most dangerous place for asbestos exposure was in the engine room, where the engine and pipes were covered with asbestos.
Those working on aircraft carriers would, no doubt, have come into contact with the dangerous material at some point during their career.
Battleships were the backbone of the U.S. Navy, but those commissioned between 1940-1990 generally contained asbestos. It was used as insulation, but also in brakes, clutches, tiles and walls to provide strength, friction and limit the risk of fire.
Destroyers were often referred to as ‘tin cans’ as their hull plating was so thin. This meant that there was less material protecting the sailors from asbestos, which was used within the walls as a way to insulate and protect against fire. The tight quarters and lack of space meant that the sailors were often in close contact with asbestos on a daily basis, particularly when carrying out maintenance on equipment—such as the boiler and engine—in such a confined space.
Frigates were used as an escort for other ships and were required to move around quickly and carry large loads. The Tacoma was, perhaps, the most renowned model, and could travel at 9,500 miles at 12 knots.
Unfortunately, this meant that the steam pressure was extremely high, and the engines had to be lined with additional asbestos to prevent fires, putting those on board at a higher risk of developing mesothelioma.
Submarines used a lot of asbestos as it offered lightweight durability—perfect for small, cramped spaces. However, when a submarine was attacked, the asbestos would become damaged and emit tiny fibers into the submarine’s air system, which would then circulate throughout the vessel. Essentially, this could expose everyone on board to harmful asbestos fibers.
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High-Risk Navy Ship Occupations
Asbestos is most dangerous when it becomes friable. At this stage, the asbestos fibers can easily be inhaled, possibly leading to mesothelioma. Until the mid-1970s to early 1980s, the dangers of asbestos were not fully realized, which is why it was used so prevalently.
Service members most at risk of asbestos in Navy ships include:
- Those who served on ships whose keels were laid before 1983
- Veterans who worked in shipyards from the 1930s until around the 1990s
- Navy personnel who worked below deck before the early 1990s
- Seamen who were responsible for removing damaged or old asbestos from engine and boiler rooms.
- Service members who had to clean up old asbestos, or handle asbestos that had been removed
- Pipe-fitters, boiler-men, maintenance workers and demolition experts who worked on ships before the 1990s
- Naval engineers
Treatment for Navy Veterans With Mesothelioma
Veterans who have developed mesothelioma as a result of working on Navy ships can file medical claims through the VA. Health care is available to most veterans who have developed asbestos-related diseases as a result of the asbestos they were exposed to while serving. VA health benefits apply to eligible veterans based on the VA’s eligibility criteria.
If you are a veteran concerned about the health effects of asbestos, please consult a mesothelioma specialist to discuss your concerns. Dr. Robert Cameron at the Greater Los Angeles VA hospital and Dr. Avi Lebenthal at the Boston VA are two of the top mesothelioma doctors in the world and work within the VA Healthcare system to aid veterans with mesothelioma.
For more information on mesothelioma treatment for Navy veterans, contact our Patient Advocates. Call us at (800) 584-4151 or request a FREE Mesothelioma Help Guide to better understand mesothelioma treatment options and how to receive treatment.