Why Did the U.S. Navy Use Asbestos on Ships?
Of all veterans in the military, members of the U.S. Navy were put at the greatest risk of exposure to asbestos and related illnesses. The Navy used asbestos in nearly every part of ships from World War II through the mid-1970s.
The intensive use of asbestos began in 1939 when the U.S. Navy started stockpiling it on the eve of World War II. There are several reasons why asbestos was considered so useful for ships:
- Asbestos is an effective insulator
- It is lightweight
- Asbestos is also useful on ships because it resists fire
Fire onboard a ship, especially out at sea, is extremely dangerous. It is crucial to take all necessary steps to prevent fires, including using fire retardants like asbestos.
When Did the Navy Use Asbestos?
Peak use of asbestos was from the 1930s through the 1970s. Any ships built during this period, both civilian and military, most likely contained asbestos throughout.
How Did Asbestos on Ships Cause Exposure?
When asbestos materials are contained and encapsulated, they pose no risk. When exposed, the fibers can release into the air where anyone in the area can inhale them.
Inhaled asbestos fibers lodge in tissues in the respiratory system. Over time, this causes damage and may result in illnesses like asbestosis, mesothelioma, or lung cancer.
Navy veterans may have inhaled asbestos fibers during the construction and repair of ships or when performing routine duties and maintenance on ships. For example, pipefitters could have cut through asbestos insulation releasing fibers into the air.
Where Was Asbestos Used on Navy Ships?
Asbestos was used extensively throughout all types of Navy ships for about thirty to forty years. It could be found in nearly every part of the ship to insulate and prevent the spread of fire.
Sailors who worked below decks or in certain other parts of the ship were in especially close contact with the mineral. Some of the major uses of asbestos were in:
- The Boiler Room: The boiler produces steam to power the ship and its machinery. It produces a huge amount of heat and requires insulation. Navy ships built before the 1970s included asbestos in the insulation around boilers and gaskets. Those workers in the boiler room were often exposed to asbestos while working with and servicing the boiler.
- Steam Pipes: The pipes carrying the steam and water throughout a ship also had to be insulated. They were wrapped in asbestos insulation. The pipes on these ships ran through every part of it, including where sailors ate and slept. Any damaged insulation could release particles of asbestos into the air and food.
- Valves and Pumps: Pumps and valves also contained asbestos insulation. Those workers who maintained and made repairs to pumps, valves, and associated gaskets were at risk of inhaling asbestos fibers.
- Fireproofing and safety gear. Asbestos textiles and paneling provided important fireproofing for Navy ships. Gunner’s mates wore asbestos gloves and sailors with safety and firefighting duties also used protective asbestos gear.
In addition to these main uses for asbestos on Navy ships, the mineral could also be found in adhesives and flooring and fire-retardant material in paneling, bedding, deck covers, and other equipment and materials.
Navy Ships Affected by Asbestos
Some naval jobs put workers at greater risk than others, but all could and probably were exposed at some point. All kinds of ships in the Navy used asbestos, including:
- Aircraft carriers
- Amphibious ships
- Auxiliary ships
- Patrol boats
Merchant Marine Ships
The members of the U.S. Merchant Marine are not always remembered, but they too faced asbestos exposure. These civilians served in World War II by transporting cargo, troops, and military supplies using U.S. Maritime Service ships.
Like the ships officially a part of the U.S. Navy, the ships these mariners worked on were full of asbestos. These civilians performed valuable and crucial services for the country during war.
According to one study of former merchant mariners, one-third of those examined had a pleural anomaly or abnormality that could lead to mesothelioma.
The study included over 3,000 former mariners and found that those who worked in the engine and boiler rooms of the ships were at particular risk of developing asbestos-related illnesses.
Do Navy Ships Still Contain Asbestos?
The navy stopped constructing ships with asbestos in the 1980s. However, this was not the end of asbestos on ships. The Navy spent years removing or encapsulating existing asbestos on ships.
Much of it has been removed but many ships still have asbestos. These materials only pose a risk to current service members if it becomes damaged or exposed without the use of proper safety gear.
Service members currently at risk are those involved in the maintenance, repair, or overhaul of older ships. The Navy is responsible for keeping these men and women safe by educating them about the risks of asbestos and providing safety training and gear.
U.S. Navy Veterans Have High Rates of Mesothelioma
Veterans, and Navy veterans, especially, have some of the highest rates of mesothelioma as compared to the general public. Anyone working on ships during the period in which asbestos was used so extensively was at risk of being exposed.
Inhaled asbestos fibers can get lodged in the tissue around the lungs, called the pleura, and cause damage. Over decades this can lead to the most common type of mesothelioma: pleural mesothelioma.
Resources for Veterans of U.S. Navy Ships
Veterans who were unknowingly exposed to asbestos during service are now entitled to certain benefits.
The U.S. Veterans Affairs Administration (VA) provides benefits to those veterans who can show their diagnoses resulted from asbestos exposure during their service.
Veterans may be eligible for:
- Monthly compensation
- Special compensation
- Health care
- Dependent benefits
The VA hospital in Los Angeles is a specialist center for mesothelioma where veterans with this disease can get cutting-edge care.
If you or a loved one is a veteran and experienced asbestos exposure during service to the country, contact the VA to find out what benefits you may receive.
You may also be able to file a lawsuit against the manufacturer of asbestos-containing materials that you used on the job. Speak to an experienced mesothelioma lawyer to find out what your rights are.
If a company that supplied asbestos materials to Navy ships went bankrupt, they may have an asbestos trust fund. Many companies set up these trusts to compensate victims of exposure to their products. You can make a claim for compensation through one or more trusts.
What Should I Do if I Encountered Asbestos on a Navy Ship?
If you served in the U.S. Navy, you may have been exposed to asbestos. Talk to your doctor about screenings for asbestos illnesses. Monitor yourself for symptoms of mesothelioma and other respiratory conditions:
- Persistent coughing
- Wheezing and shortness of breath
- Chest pains
You should also contact a lawyer to find out what your options are for compensation. They can help you figure out where and when you were exposed, file a lawsuit on your behalf, make an asbestos trust fund claim, and help you navigate VA benefits.Get Your FREE Mesothelioma Packet
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.