The Charlestown Navy Yard is located in Charlestown, Massachusetts, to the northeast of downtown Boston. Operational from 1801 until 1974, the Charlestown Navy Yard was one of the first shipbuilding sites in the country. It has been referred to as the Boston Naval Shipyard since 1945.
Acting upon the orders of Congress, the Secretary of the Navy opened the Charlestown Navy Yard and five other shipbuilding facilities across the country to build ships for the nation’s defense. One of the first ships built at the Charlestown Navy Yard was the USS Independence. Other types of ships built at the navy yard include: barracks ships; destroyer escorts; destroyers; motor tugs; submarines; and tank landing ships. Through the majority of the 19th century, the yard was used to repair and store ships and as a supply site for food and personal effects such as clothing.
The pace of work slowed again in the mid twentieth century. In 1974, the naval yard was closed as part of a governmental cost-saving effort. Thirty acres of the naval yard are now part of the Boston National Historical Park, where visitors can learn about ships such as the USS Constitution. The legacy of the naval yard is linked to the nation’s nautical and naval history. It is also part of the nation’s public health history, as shipbuilding facilities are one of the primary sites of asbestos exposure.
Asbestos refers to a group of six minerals that occur naturally in the environment and can be mined. Asbestos shares many qualities with cloth, but is also resistant to heat and fire and is very strong. Characteristics like these made it a popular and prevalent material in many industrial processes – like shipbuilding — from the late 1800’s through the end of the twentieth century.
Asbestos was used extensively at the Charlestown Navy Yard; according to the US Navy, over 289 products that contained asbestos were commonly used in the shipbuilding process. The risks of asbestos were documented as early as the 1920’s. However most industries and employers, including the US Navy, either withheld this information or were slow to act on it. As a result, generations of workers were exposed to asbestos in sometimes lethal doses. Although the US Navy imposed a ban on asbestos usage in 1973, it continued to use the substance for several years after this. Most uses of asbestos were banned by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1989.
Asbestos exposure occurs when particles of asbestos become airborne and are inhaled or swallowed by workers. These particles become lodged in the lungs, the chest wall or the abdomen. Fifteen – 50 years after exposure, this can lead to a number of respiratory conditions, including asbestosis (A form of scaring in the lungs), lung cancer, mesothelioma, and pleural effusions. Mesothelioma is a rare, aggressive form of asbestos cancer that is almost always fatal. Many people who worked at the Charlestown Navy Yard went on to develop malignant mesothelioma years later.