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Asbestos, a natural but potentially harmful mineral, was once commonly used in shipyards and ship building. Asbestos is linked to several serious health conditions, including mesothelioma, an incurable cancer. Although we now know more about the risks of asbestos exposure, the substance is still used in many ship building materials. People who build and repair ships need to be aware of the risks of asbestos exposure.
What is Asbestos?
Asbestos is a group of natural minerals mined from the earth. Used for thousands of years in construction applications, asbestos resists fire, heat, electricity, and chemical corrosion.
With the building boom of the industrial revolution, the amount of asbestos used in ships and construction skyrocketed. Nearly 200,000 tons of asbestos were used worldwide by 1920. The use of asbestos in ship construction is high compared to other industries, putting shipbuilders and repairers at particular risk.
Danger of Asbestos Exposure
There are many reasons ship repair workers should be concerned about asbestos exposure. When asbestos is friable, or un-encapsulated, it can be easily crushed or disturbed. Once disturbed, asbestos releases fibers into the air where they can be easily inhaled or ingested. These tiny fibers lodge in the lungs and other tissues causing cell damage.
Over time, fibers lodged in tissues can lead to a number of serious health conditions. Most often fibers stay in and around the lungs where they can cause asbestosis, lung cancer, or pleural mesothelioma. However, the fibers can also migrate, causing mesothelioma in other parts of the body including around the heart and lining of abdominal organs.
Mesothelioma is a particularly devastating cancer. It is often misdiagnosed or remains un-diagnosed until its later stages. At this point, mesothelioma is difficult to treat. At late stages of the disease, a diagnosis represents a grim prognosis for former ship repair workers.
Shipyard Workers at Risk of Asbestos Exposure
New asbestos regulations were enacted in 1979. Prior to that year, asbestos was used extensively in the building and repair of ships. Today, shipyard workers are still at risk of exposure due to older ships still in use. Also, asbestos is still used in ship construction today, although not with the prevalence of years past.
A U.S. study investigated exposure and risk of ship repairers. This study researched 286 workers in the ship repair business for more than 30 years. Of the workers studied, 86 percent had signs of asbestosis, an asbestos-related respiratory disorder. Five of the workers were found to have previously un-diagnosed lung cancer.
International studies have found similar results. In an Italian study of 153 men that died from mesothelioma, most worked in or around ships. Ninety-nine worked in shipbuilding and repair, and seven were dockworkers or longshoremen.
A more recent U.S. report found the results of exposure to asbestos continue to be seen in ship repair workers and shipbuilders. Between 1990 and 1999, when the cause of death listed on death certificates was asbestosis, the second most frequently recorded industry was ship building and ship repair. In 1999, the ship building and repairing industry had the most recorded fatalities from malignant mesothelioma.
Why Ship Repair Workers Face High Asbestos Exposure Risks
Shipping is not the only industry with extensive asbestos use. However, there are several factors that explain why ship workers are at a greater risk. One is the high use of asbestos in the building and repair of ships. In decades past, it was used in almost every part of the ship and in the putties and materials used for repair.
The use of blue and brown asbestos in shipbuilding is another contributing factor. These most dangerous types of asbestos were most often used in ships. Spraying, one of the most dangerous ways to apply asbestos and asbestos-containing materials, was also used extensively in ship building.
Where Asbestos Is Found on Ships and in Ship Repair Materials
In older ships, asbestos can be found in almost every nook and cranny. Concrete and tile flooring, ceiling panels and fire insulation materials, and even ship doors contain asbestos. Other sources include electrical cables, gaskets, brake linings, boiler cladding, and mooring ropes. Welders’ gloves and curtains, firebricks in furnaces, and fireproof clothing shipboard fire fighters also contain asbestos. Asbestos is often found in repair materials as well, including glues, sealants, and putties.
Asbestos used in the construction and repair of ships does not have to be harmful. It is only dangerous when fibers become airborne. If well encapsulated, asbestos poses little or no risk. While asbestos materials are used with less frequency today, they are required to be well-contained, reducing the risk of airborne fibers.
If regulations are not followed, ship repair becomes dangerous. Also, in places where there is damage to otherwise encapsulated asbestos materials making them friable. For example, concrete with asbestos is considered safe and non-friable. Normal handling of concrete will not crush it or expose asbestos fibers. However, if the concrete is damaged or crumbling, workers are at risk of exposure to airborne fibers of asbestos, especially if employers do not take proper safety precautions.
If you work in ship repair and have been exposed to asbestos due to employer or manufacturer negligence, you may be eligible for compensation. Many industry workers have sued after being diagnosed with asbestosis, mesothelioma, or other related conditions. A mesothelioma lawyer can help you make your case and provide guidance for accessing mesothelioma trust funds.
Page Edited by Patient Advocate Dave Foster
Dave has been a mesothelioma Patient Advocate for over 10 years. He consistently attends all major national and international mesothelioma meetings. In doing so, he is able to stay on top of the latest treatments, clinical trials, and research results. He also personally meets with mesothelioma patients and their families and connects them with the best medical specialists and legal representatives available.