Asbestos has been part of the maritime industry for nearly eighty years. Long noted for its fire resistance, asbestos insulation had long been used in fire doors, around boilers and to line fire boxes.
In September of 1934, the burning of the S.S. Morro Castle off the coast of New Jersey led the maritime industry to demand more stringent fire regulations. Part of this involved required fire training for crewmembers and regular life boat drills.
The other component was asbestos. The harmful health effects of asbestos, such as asbestosis and mesothelioma, had been documented in Europe for thirty years, but the information was just reaching the U.S. in the 1930s. The reaction of the maritime industry to the S.S. Morro Castle tragedy presented an extremely lucrative opportunity to the asbestos industry. Corporations such as W.R. Grace, Johns-Manville and Raysbestos presented a great deal of evidence to Congress on the fireproof characteristics of asbestos; they were far less forthcoming about the known or suspected health hazards, however.
The second factor in the expanded use of asbestos on sea-going vessels had to do with the Second World War. The Japanese attack on U.S. soil was a surprise to most Americans, but the Roosevelt Administration had been expecting it for some time; they just didn’t know exactly when or where such an attack would occur. Because of this, war production started gearing up some time before December of 1941.
Because of the fire danger exacerbated by combat conditions, asbestos was used in nearly every part of virtually every ship built during the war. Afterwards, there seemed to be no reason to stop using asbestos. As a result, virtually every sea-going vessel constructed between 1940 and 1980 had asbestos everywhere.
Ships below decks tend to be very poorly ventilated and enclosed environments. This makes for a dangerous situation for anyone working on board – including those workers who load and unload the cargo hold.
Longshoremen were exposed to this asbestos not only when aboard these ships; frequently, the danger was in the very cargo they handled. Although the U.S. produced its own asbestos in great quantities, importation of asbestos and asbestos products from abroad was common. Because there was no regulation, longshoremen handling such cargo were unaware of the hazardous nature of these materials, and were unlikely to have taken any precautions.
What Are The Chances?
A 1980 study conducted by the late asbestos health researcher Dr. Irving Selikoff and two colleagues showed that in a group of workers who had spent a minimum of 20 years in ship repair, 86% contracted some form of respiratory disease.
That said, it is a documented fact that not everyone who is exposed to asbestos develops malignant mesothelioma. Asbestosis is far more common and better understood by medical doctors. It results when antibodies known as microphages attempt to attack asbestos fibers as if they were a pathogen. Instead, the inorganic nature of these fibers causes the microphages to tear themselves apart. As a result, digestive enzymes that normally destroy viruses and bacteria instead attack health lung tissue, causing the formation of scar tissue. As this scar tissue builds up over the years, it gradually reduces lung capacity to the point where the victim suffocates.
While doctors are not certain how this mineral directly causes the asbestos cancer mesothelioma, it is agreed that asbestos fibers are the primary cause or trigger for the disease.