Those who were part of the merchant marine between 1940 and 1980 are among the many industrial and maritime workers at risk for asbestos-related disease. The reason is rooted in maritime history going back eight decades, as well as the deep seated and justified fear sea-going men have of fire at sea.
That fear was gruesomely realized in the small hours of Saturday morning, 8 September, 1934. A fire broke out below decks and spread rapidly; before the ship was finally abandoned approximately eight hours later, nearly one-quarter of all those aboard – mostly passengers – were dead.
Despite the fact that the connection between asbestos and respiratory disease was becoming very apparent (Great Britain had already tightly regulated the use of it in 1931), the asbestos corporations – W.R. Grace & Company, Johns-Manville, Raysbestos-Manhattan and others – saw an opportunity to make fabulous profits. Exploiting the emotions of the victims’ families, the fears of the maritime industry and the relative ignorance of members of Congress, lobbyists for the asbestos industry convinced the federal government to pass regulations requiring the extensive use of asbestos throughout the construction of new ships.
Cover-ups and National Emergency
By 1940, the evidence was clear: asbestos exposure was indeed identified as the cause of respiratory diseases such as asbestosis and mesothelioma. The scientific studies that confirmed these links had actually been financed by the asbestos corporation Raysbestos – Manhattan itself, and carried out by a doctor in the employ of the well-known insurer, Metropolitan Life. Sumner Simpson, then CEO of Raysbestos went to great lengths to suppress, alter and delete the findings, and went so far as to conspire with the management of rival asbestos company Johns-Manville to keep the information from the public.
Evidence of the health effects of asbestos had also come to the attention if the federal government as well. However, the Roosevelt Administration, fearing an attack by the Japanese Empire and wishing to ramp up war production in preparation for a conflict that was seen as inevitable, chose to hide the information as well, citing concerns about “disturbances in the labor force” were such information to become generally known.
Eventually, the federal government issued safety guidelines in 1943, recommending that shipyard workers wear respirators. Meanwhile, the asbestos corporations were quite aggressive in spreading the message that asbestos was “harmless;” as a result, government guidelines – which did not have the force of law – were essentially ignored until the entire corporate conspiracy was exposed in 1977.
Mesothelioma and Asbestosis
After twenty years of breathing asbestos fibers an the enclosed space, it is small wonder that so many seamen contract respiratory diseases; in one group of mariners studied at the Mount Sinai Hospital School of Medicine, the rate was 86%.
Once the asbestos cancer develops, in it’s most common form (Pleural mesothelioma) it spreads in a sheet-like fashion over the lungs, and often spreads to the inner chest and abdominal walls. The lungs are increasingly unable to expand, and eventually the victim dies from asphyxiation.