Of all the types of ships made and used by the U.S. Navy, the battleship is the one that was designed to protect the fleet and to attack in the name of enforcing naval dominance. These ships were heavily armored and heavily equipped with firepower. Among the most powerful and intimidating ships to operate in the 20th century, the battleship today is an inactive style of navy vessel.
Like other navy ships, though, battleships were constructed using a lot of harmful asbestos. Asbestos was prized for use in ships for a period of time because it was not only inexpensive and easy to get, but it also could add lightweight insulation and fireproofing, important factors in ship materials. Today, U.S. Navy veterans have some of the highest rates of asbestos-related mesothelioma because of serving on battleships and other vessels that were full of asbestos.
Battleships have been around since the late 1700s, but today they have become obsolete. No longer considered necessary in many modern navies, the battleships of the past were heavily armored fighting ships. In addition to the armor, these ships were notable for the heavy artillery with which they were equipped. They were long considered to be essential to a navy for asserting and communicating dominance in the maritime world.
In the U.S. Navy, battleships were named for states, with one exception being the USS Kearsarge. There were also several different types and classes of battleships. The types were the Coast defense battleships, the Pre-dreadnought battleships, the Dreadnoughts, the Standard, and the Fast battleships. Within each of these were several classes of battleships. The hull classification for battleships was BB. The last battleships used in the U.S. Navy were stricken from the Naval Registry in 2006: the USS Iowa and the USS Wisconsin.
The first modern, armored battleship to be used by the U.S. military was the USS Monitor used by the Union to do sea battle with the Confederacy during the Civil War. In turn, the Confederacy had the CSS Virginia. These battleships began a trend in the U.S. Navy of building ships with steam engines, guns, and armor to be able to better attack and defend. At the dawn of the twentieth century battleships were getting bigger, faster, and more impressively armed.
Great Britain built what could be described as the first modern battleship, the HMS Dreadnought, in 1906. This ship was heavily armored, but it was also fast. It had more guns than any other ship and a much better range. It served as the blueprint for the modern battleships the U.S. Navy would build going forward. The increase in size, speed, armor, and guns on battleships grew until peaking with the ships built for World War II.
What began to bring about the downfall of the battleships was already being used in World War II: radar that could sense long distances and aircraft carriers that could bring the air war to any location in the world. The attack on Pearl Harbor, most notably, demonstrated the power of the aircraft carrier and launching an attack from the air, when compared to the use of battleships.
Most navies around the world began to decommission their battleships after World War II, although some found new lives with other purposes. In the U.S. the battleships of the Iowa class were reused as fire support ships. Some battleships continued to be used in launching shells at shore, including during the Vietnam War and Operation Desert Storm. The U.S. Navy finally decommissioned most battleships by the 1990s, continuing to use the USS Iowa and USS Wisconsin as fire ships until 2006.
Use of Asbestos on Battleships
Like most ships in the U.S. Navy, battleships were constructed with some amount of asbestos. Asbestos was long used in a number of industries, but its unique qualities were particularly prized for shipbuilding. Asbestos is lightweight, and minimizing weight on ships is important. It also insulates well, which is important on ships that are operated by heat-producing boilers and engines. Asbestos is also useful for fireproofing. Fires on ships at sea are particularly dangerous and any material that can prevent fires starting or spreading was prized.
In navy ships generally, there were over 300 products and components used that were made with asbestos. Insulation was an important asbestos material on battleships for insulating the boiler and engines, pipes running throughout the ships, and pumps. Gaskets and valves used asbestos for sealing, and asbestos was also used in fireproofing materials, in flooring, and even in walls.
Personnel Exposed to Asbestos
Sailors and officers who worked aboard U.S. battleships were at risk of being exposed to asbestos. Any contamination from the fibers that make up the asbestos on these ships could have caused personnel to suffer internal tissue damage that can lead to illnesses that include mesothelioma, asbestos lung cancer, and asbestosis, a progressive lung-scarring disease that is ultimately fatal.
Anyone who worked on these ships could have been exposed, but those at greatest risk were boiler room workers and engine room workers because they worked in confined, unventilated spaces in which there was a lot of asbestos. Also at more serious risk were any workers who had to handle, repair, or maintain asbestos materials on these ships. For example, pipefitters who had to cut through the insulation covering most of the pipes on the ships were likely to have exposed the fibers and inhaled them. Additionally, veterans and civilians who worked in the shipyards that maintained and repaired battleships and those who scrapped them were at risk of exposure.
U.S. Battleships with Asbestos
U.S. Navy battleships were largely made or maintained and repaired at a time when asbestos use was acceptable, before the risks of illness caused by exposure were well known or known at all. Most of the battleships, all of which are now out of commission, used asbestos to some extent. Anyone that served on these ships could have been exposed to asbestos and could have gotten sick. Battleship veterans should be aware that they may have been exposed. Battleships known to have contained asbestos include:
- USS Alabama, commissioned 1942, museum
- USS Arizona, commissioned 1916, sunk
- USS Arkansas, commissioned 1912, sunk
- USS California, commissioned 1921, scrapped
- USS Colorado, commissioned 1923, scrapped
- USS Delaware, commissioned 1910, scrapped
- USS Florida, commissioned 1911, scrapped
- USS Idaho, commissioned 1908, sunk
- USS Idaho, commissioned 1919, scrapped
- USS Indiana, commissioned 1942, scrapped
- USS Iowa, commissioned 1943, museum
- USS Kansas, commissioned 1907, scrapped
- USS Maryland, commissioned 1921, scrapped
- USS Massachusetts, commissioned 1942, museum
- USS Michigan, commissioned 1910, scrapped
- USS Mississippi, commissioned 1917, scrapped
- USS Missouri, commissioned 1944, museum
- USS Nevada, commissioned 1916, sunk
- USS New Hampshire, commissioned 1908, scrapped
- USS New Jersey, commissioned 1943, museum
- USS New Mexico, commissioned 1918, scrapped
- USS New York, commissioned 1914, sunk
- USS North Carolina, commissioned , museum
- USS North Dakota, commissioned , 1910, scrapped
- USS Oklahoma, commissioned , 1916, sunk
- USS Pennsylvania, commissioned 1916, sunk
- USS South Carolina, commissioned 1910, scrapped
- USS South Dakota, commissioned 1942, scrapped
- USS Tennessee, commissioned 1920, scrapped
- USS Texas, commissioned 1914, museum
- USS Utah, commissioned 1911, sank
- USS Vermont, commissioned 1907, scrapped
- USS Washington, commissioned 1941, scrapped
- USS West Virginia, commissioned 1923, scrapped
- USS Wisconsin, commissioned 1944, museum
- USS Wyoming, commissioned 1912, scrapped
U.S. Navy veterans have some of the highest rates of mesothelioma as compared to the general public and other groups in the U.S. This is because battleships and other vessels in the navy used asbestos in insulation and other materials and caused confined personnel to inhale asbestos fibers. While not all veterans got sick from this exposure, many did. They are now able to contact the Veterans Administration to get support, medical care, and compensation.
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