Asbestos & the Navy

There are many examples of asbestos exposure in military settings stretching from World War II until about the mid-1970s. However, the Navy, when compared to other divisions, had the maximum possibility to deal with asbestos. Between the 1930s and 1980s, navy made use of asbestos-containing products in its ships and shipyards to exploit the excellent heat and fire-resistant properties of the substance. There was a time that Navy even mandated the use of asbestos, applying the carcinogen in at least 300 substances for construction and maintenance of aboard warships and service at shipyards.

Heat resistance is of greatest importance in engine rooms. For this reason, asbestos was used in insulation and many other products situated in engine rooms. This doesn’t mean that asbestos was used only in engine rooms. As a matter of fact, it would be hard to find a section free of asbestos in a naval ship built before the 1970s. Asbestos was widely used in fire rooms, boiler rooms, navigation rooms, sleep quarters and mess halls. Additionally, products like gaskets, valves, cables, cement and other adhesives and many others contained asbestos.

Surgeon General of the Navy was aware of the fact that asbestosis was caused by continuous exposure to asbestos fibers. The report published by the general covered the health conditions at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and unveiled the yard’s pipe covers and insulators exposed workers to the lethal asbestos particles. Though this was known from as early as 1939, the Navy kept on using asbestos for almost four decades – an ample testimony for the fact that human safety was disregarded for commercial interests.

Naval workers were exposed to deadly asbestos particles for many years during their job in the construction, maintenance, demolition and renovation of warships and buildings, most of the time in elevated levels. Navy personnel stationed aboard these asbestos-laden ships were frequently showered in asbestos dust. Though asbestos is not so hazardous at its normal state, it became deadly if disturbed. Dry asbestos is brittle and tiny asbestos fibers are released into the air when it is broken. These particles can be inhaled easily and adhere to the internal lining of the lungs, abdomen, and heart. These fibers, which lie dormant for decades, cause deadly diseases like mesothelioma.

Adjacent quarters aboard ships and shipyards unavoidably caused several asbestos products being struck during daily jobs and thus led to the inhalation of the carcinogenic particles. Additionally, the particles attached to clothing were regularly carried home and eventually even the family and friends of the Navy personnel were exposed to the lethal material.

In New ships made since the mid-70s, use of asbestos-containing products was minimized. However, Navy started selling several outdated ships for scrap materials in the early 1990s. Dismantling of such obsolete ships generally takes place in depressed ports, where trained workers experienced in handling asbestos is not available. In these ports, workers don’t take any safety measures while handling the toxic substance.

The astonishing fact is that some naval ships still contain asbestos. The lethal substance, which is embedded in gaskets, brakes, clutches and some other materials, still remains as a threat to yet another generation of Navy personnel.