Asbestos in Naval Ships

Until the late 1970s, Navy ships were built with asbestos-containing materials that put servicemen and servicewomen at risk for developing mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases.

Asbestos and Mesothelioma

The fibrous, naturally-occurring mineral asbestos has certain unique properties that led to its widespread use in industrial applications throughout much of the 20th century. Asbestos is lightweight, strong and naturally resistant to flame, heat, electrical charges and most forms of chemical corrosion. Moreover, asbestos is relatively inexpensive to produce.

Asbestos, however, represents a major public health threat. Medical scientists have linked asbestos exposure to the development of a number of debilitating diseases including mesothelioma, a cancer that causes tumor formation in the tissues lining the thoracic, abdominal and pericardial cavities. Between 2,000 and 3,000 cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed every year in the United States.

Mesothelioma is characterized by an exceptionally long incubation period that can range between 20 and 50 years. Navy veterans who were initially exposed to asbestos during the 1960s and 1970s may be learning their diagnosis for the very first time today.

Asbestos and the U.S. Navy

Practically every industry in the U.S. made extensive use of asbestos as an insulating material until the late 1970s when federal agencies finally began regulating the mineral's use. Asbestos was particularly popular with the U.S. military. In 1939, the Navy issued a directive mandating the use of asbestos in all new ship construction to protect against fires at sea as a matter of national security.

The highest concentrations of asbestos on ships were to be found in boiler and engine rooms where asbestos-containing materials insulated pipes, turbines, gaskets, pumps, valves and other heavy machinery. Asbestos was also incorporated into the building supplies used to construct sleeping quarters, galleys and mess halls. Asbestos was even sprayed on ships' hulls in aerosol form. All told, the Navy routinely used over 300 different types of asbestos-containing products. Tons of asbestos were used on naval vessels, putting every worker involved in constructing those ships, as well as every sailor who worked onboard them, at risk for developing mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases.

Living conditions onboard these ships were crowded and cramped. Shipboard repairs were constantly called for. When asbestos-containing insulation was cut off and replaced, clouds of dust containing asbestos microfilaments were released into the air. When sailors inhaled this dust, the microfilaments lodged in their lungs, initiating cellular changes that were the precursors of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases.

There is plenty of evidence that the Navy fully understood the risk asbestos posed. As early as 1922, the Navy advised the use of respirators for men and women working directly with asbestos and added asbestos workers to its list of hazardous occupations. In the late 1930s, medical corpsmen were issued pamphlets describing the effects of long-term asbestos exposure. At the beginning of World War II, however, concerns about asbestos were subordinated to the need to build a seaworthy fleet.

Asbestos In the Shipyard

Sailors were not the only servicemen and servicewomen at risk. More than four million shipyard workers involved with building Navy vessels were also exposed to high concentrations of asbestos. Not all of these men and women were directly working with asbestos. Asbestos dust could be dispersed throughout the shipyard, putting all workers at risk, even civilian contractors.

Ironically, the death toll among shipyard workers exposed to asbestos was almost as high as the combat death rate: 14 out of every 1,000 shipyard workers eventually died from mesothelioma, while 18 out of every 1,000 soldiers died from enemy fire.

Although the Navy officially banned the use of asbestos-containing materials onboard ships in 1973, 41 ships containing large amounts of asbestos insulation were built in the five years following the ban with the Navy's full knowledge and consent.

Veterans and Mesothelioma

Although the Navy does not compile asbestos disease statistics, other sources estimate that between 15 and 26 percent of all mesothelioma patients are Navy veterans who were first exposed to the toxic mineral during the course of their military service.