Among the millions of workers in the U.S. who have been exposed to asbestos dust since the 1940s, shipyard workers represent one of the largest groups at risk for developing asbestos-related diseases. It is estimated that 4.5 million people worked in shipyards during World War II, when shipbuilding was at its peak and when asbestos was commonly used. Asbestos exposure can cause disabling or fatal diseases such as asbestosis, lung cancer, gastrointestinal cancer and mesothelioma, a form of cancer that affects the membranes covering the lungs and body organs. As these diseases can take decades to manifest, we are still seeing the effects of asbestos exposure. From 1990 to 1999, ship and boat building and repairing was the second highest industry specified on U.S. death certificates of asbestosis victims age 15 and older.
Before the use of asbestos was regulated, the shipbuilding industry took advantage of the well-known fire-retardant and heat insulator properties of asbestos, using it to insulate boilers, steam pipes, hot water pipes, and nuclear reactors. And even though asbestos use in the U.S. has dramatically decreased since the 1980s, ships built before then have posed risks and still pose risks to shipyard workers responsible for repairing and maintaining them.
The risk of developing asbestos-related illness increases with heavier exposure and longer exposure time; medical studies have shown that of workers with at least 20 years of shipbuilding experience, 86% have developed an asbestos-related disease. However, even shipyard workers who were exposed to high levels of asbestos fibers for as little as one or two months have developed asbestos-related diseases. Because asbestos fibers are microscopic and extremely light, they can remain airborne for a long time. As a result, it is not just shipyard workers who worked directly with asbestos-containing materials who are at risk of developing an asbestos cancer; anyone who worked near contaminated areas may have been exposed to and inhaled asbestos fibers.
As an example a retired shipyard worker who was exposed to asbestos during the late 1940s and 1950s, exhibited symptoms of lung disease forty years later, at age 63. He was diagnosed with asbestos-related pleural disease and asbestosis. Although his condition was stable for the next seven years, at age 70 he began to deteriorate, and he died of pulmonary failure two years later.
In 2007, mesothelioma lawyers working on behalf of the widow of a former shipyard worker sued the manufacturers of asbestos-containing products he used in his 31-year career at Newport News Shipyard. He died in 2006, two years after he was diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma. His widow was awarded $5.5 million in damages.
Diseases associated with asbestos exposure generally do not appear for 15 or more years after initial exposure, so even people who haven’t worked in a shipyard in many years may still be at risk for developing mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease. Such workers are urged to discuss their possible asbestos exposure with their doctor and to receive regular check-ups for any signs of asbestos-related disease.