Asbestos is a fibrous mineral that was once coveted for its heat and chemical resistance, flexibility, strength and affordability. It was incorporated extensively throughout the U.S. Navy during World War II, when the demand for quick, cheap and efficient ship construction was at an all-time high. Asbestos was used in thousands of Navy ships built during this time from bow to stern, in boiler and engine rooms and as insulation and protection around any heat-producing equipment.
When asbestos fibers become worn or damaged, they are dispersed into the air. When these fibers are inhaled, they may become lodged in the lining of the lungs. Persistent inhalation may lead to an accumulation of fibers in the body, which can lead to serious health conditions, including pleural mesothelioma.
Although the surgeon general of the U.S. Navy described the “Hazards of Asbestosis” at the New York Navy Yard in his 1939 annual report, his concerns about asbestos were dismissed by Navy personnel in command. Even when evidence linked serious long-term health conditions to asbestos, it was largely ignored.
Today, it is important that Navy veterans understand how they may have been exposed to asbestos while serving their country and what that means for them now. If you served in the Navy, you are at risk for developing pleural mesothelioma cancer or other asbestos-related conditions.
The Navy began to decrease its use of asbestos products in the 1970s, but the asbestos-laced vessels remained in use for many years after that. Today, the Environmental Protection Agency regulates asbestos use, but asbestos products from the 20th century remain a threat to military personnel.
Asbestos Exposure Among Navy Veterans
Navy veterans may have been exposed to asbestos in a number of ways during their service. Those at the highest risk are those who participated in the construction, repair, renovation or demolition of the thousands of Navy vessels containing asbestos. Asbestos fibers were likely to have become airborne during these jobs, where asbestos-containing pipes and other parts were cut, maneuvered and otherwise damaged.
Several jobs onboard Navy ships required close interaction with asbestos, including boiler tenders, engine mechanics, shipfitters, pipefitters, steel workers and repairmen. Jobs that involved work on piping, boilers, walls, floors or ceilings more than likely exposed veterans to asbestos that was used as insulation.
Asbestos was also found in engine rooms, boiler rooms, weapon and ammunition storage rooms, mess halls, sleeping quarters and navigation rooms of Navy vessels. Sailors who were deployed overseas for a long period of time may have been exposed in more than one way.
Asbestos was extensively used by shipbuilders in all areas of Navy ships that needed heat resistance. Products such as cables, valves and gaskets contained asbestos. The toxic mineral was heavily used for insulation and covered pipes, pumps, motors, condensers and compressors that helped run the ships and submarines.
As Navy ships aged, insulation materials became brittle and easily damaged. Any disturbance of these materials would send fibers into the air. Sailors often slept in bunks positioned right below asbestos-covered pipes that would shake off asbestos dust daily.
The Navy’s pervasive use of asbestos went well beyond its use in ships and submarines. Navy bases on land were constructed with countless asbestos-containing construction products and materials. Some residential subdivisions built on or near these Navy bases were also at risk for asbestos contamination, especially during and after demolition and improper disposal of asbestos-containing products and materials.
Navy shipyards were also major asbestos exposure sites for civilians and Navy personnel who were employed by a number of shipbuilding companies. Exposure from these sites continued throughout the 1990s, as shipyards sold scrap pieces of asbestos-containing ships that were no longer in use.