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Asbestos in Navy Ships

Asbestos exposure has caused health problems in thousands of workers, but those on ships, especially ships of the U.S. Navy, have been put at particular risk of getting sick. The mineral, which can be deadly when it contaminates the air, is also useful for many applications in construction and in ships. It resists fire and heat, which means it can protect people on ships from fire, a major danger out at sea.

For decades the U.S. Navy used asbestos extensively throughout its ships. Thousands of veterans, sailors and members of other branches of the military that worked on or were transported on Navy ships, were exposed to asbestos and became sick with asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma. Use of asbestos is now restricted, but many veterans have still suffered decades after their service because of this harmful mineral.

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Asbestos Use 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. This is because the Navy used asbestos in just about every part of every ship for a certain period of time. This period extended approximately from World War II through the mid-1970s.

The intensive use of asbestos began in 1939 when the U.S. Navy began stockpiling it on the eve of World War II. Knowing what useful properties it had, the Navy wanted to make sure it had enough to outfit ships for a coming war.

There are several reasons why asbestos was considered so useful for military ships and for all other types of ships as well. One reason is that asbestos is an effective insulator that is also lightweight. It is important to use as little weight as possible on ships, but insulation is also important because it keeps heat in and cold out.

Asbestos is also useful on ships because it resists fire. Fire on board 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.

Where Asbestos Was Used on Navy Ships

Because asbestos was relatively inexpensive, lightweight, and so good at insulating and resisting fire, it was used extensively throughout all types of Navy ships for a period of about 30 to 40 years. Asbestos was used in nearly every part of the ship to insulate and prevent the spread of fire. Sailors that 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. This was one place on any Navy ship that was more loaded with asbestos than any other. The boiler is responsible for producing steam to power the ship and its machinery. It produces a huge amount of heat along with the steam, so insulating it is important. Navy ships built before the 1970s included asbestos in the insulation around boilers and the gaskets. Those workers in the boiler room were exposed to asbestos while working with and servicing the boiler.
  • Steam Pipes. The pipes carrying the steam as well as water throughout a ship also had to be insulated and were wrapped in material that contained a significant amount of asbestos. 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 are also components of Navy ships that commonly contained asbestos insulation. Those workers that maintained and made repairs to pumps, valves, and associated gaskets were at risk of inhaling asbestos fibers.

In addition to these main uses for asbestos on Navy ships, the mineral could also be found in adhesives and flooring, and as fire retardant material in paneling, bedding, deck covers, and other equipment and materials.

Navy Ships Affected by Asbestos

Navy veterans that worked on ships were at risk of being exposed to asbestos, regardless of their duties on board. Some workers were 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
  • Battle ships
  • Destroyers
  • Amphibious Ships
  • Cruisers
  • Auxiliary Ships
  • Submarines
  • Minesweepers
  • Frigates
  • Patrol Boats
  • Escorts

Merchant Marine Ships

A group of service veterans who worked on board ships but who are not always remembered were the members of the U.S. Merchant Marine. These were actually civilians who served in World War II by transporting cargo, troops, and military supplies using U.S. Maritime Service ships.

Like the ships that were 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 to the country during war, and yet they are not often remembered when it comes to asbestos exposure.

According to one study of former merchant mariners, one third of those examined had some kind of pleural anomaly or abnormality that could lead to mesothelioma. The study included over 3,000 former mariners and found that those that were at particular risk of developing asbestos-related illnesses were those that worked in the engine and boiler rooms of the ships.

U.S. Navy Veterans and 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 to it and becoming ill decades later with mesothelioma.

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.

It takes decades for the consequences of asbestos to be seen and felt and for a diagnosis of mesothelioma to be made. By the time they were diagnosed, many veterans with mesothelioma already had an advanced stage of the cancer and treatments were not curative. They suffered chest pains, shortness of breath, and other symptoms, but treatments for mesothelioma could only relieve some of those symptoms, not save their lives.

Veterans Resources

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-related conditions and that exposure occurred during their work for the military.

Veterans may be eligible for monthly compensation, special compensation, health care, and other 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 a civilian employer that exposed you to asbestos or 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.

Page Edited by 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. Connect with Patient Advocate Dave Foster
  1. U.S. Merchant Marine. (2014, September 29). Frequently Asked Questions about the Merchant Marine.
    Retrieved from: http://www.usmm.org/faq.html
  2. Hedley-Whyte, J. & Milamed, D.R. (2008). Asbestos and Ship-Building: Fatal Consequences. Ulster Med. J., 77(3), 191-200.
    Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2604477/
  3. Selikoff, I.J., Lilis R. & Levin, G. (1990). Asbestotic Radiological Abnormalities Among United States Merchant Marine Seamen. Br. J. Ind. Med., 47(5), 292-7.
    Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1035162/?pageindex=1&tool=pmcentrez

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