The Long Beach Naval Shipyard was located on Terminal Island between San Pedro and Long Beach, California. Purchased from the City of Long Beach in 1940, the shipyard was constructed for the purpose of refitting and remodeling non-nuclear surface vessels. Primary construction was completed in 1942, and by 1945 the base employed over 16,000 technical and non-technical personnel. At the end of World War II, Long Beach Naval Shipyard was placed on inactive status, but it was reinstated after the beginning of the Korean War in 1951 and remained active until closing in 1997. The Long Beach Naval Shipyard provided technological support for many scientific projects including Polaris, Poseidon and Sealab and participated in such industrial programs as the Occupational Safety and Health Program. It also provided the West Coast with an emergency dry-dock for nuclear powers vessels.
Refitting and remodeling of surface vessels requires a wide range of skilled labor including the ability to work with sheet metal, rigging, boilers, welding and much more; all of these tasks were performed at the Long Beach Shipyard during its active years. It was not widely recognized until the late 1970s that personnel involved in the shipbuilding process were at risk for developing asbestos-related illnesses such as asbestosis or mesothelioma. Persons who worked on the internal aspects of the vessel were at highest risk, especially those who handled asbestos directly, such as welders and pipe fitters.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous substance with excellent insulating qualities. Being both flame-retardant and non-conductive, it was considered ideal for use on ships before the heath risks were fully understood. During World War II, asbestos was heavily used on naval vessels for insulating pipes and boilers and in the manufacturing of gaskets. Asbestos, when left intact, is not dangerous to handle. However, when the fibers become airborne and are inhaled or swallowed, the particles cause damage to the internal organs, most often the lungs (As is the case with the most common form of mesothelioma, pleural mesothelioma, although it can also affect other internal organs such as the heart and stomach). This is particularly a problem in poorly ventilated areas such as inside a ship.
Asbestos cancer and the other illnesses associated with asbestos exposure often take 10 to 40 years or more to become evident. Because of this, it took effects for the danger of constant, unprotected exposure in enclosed spaces to become apparent. Until the 1970s, asbestos was used in such high concentration within ships that it became nearly impossible to evade exposure while working or serving on a vessel constructed prior to that time. Nearly 30% of cases of malignant mesothelioma, an asbestos-related disease, are veterans.
The Long Beach Naval Shipyard has been recorded as a known asbestos exposure site, and studies have been performed on many of the personnel known to have been exposed. While the numbers reflect only a portion of those historically employed at the shipyard (6,640 of over 16,000) the relationship between exposure and disease is evident. Dose and duration of contact are both contributing factors in the likelihood of developing related health problems. Abnormal findings related to asbestos exposure were encountered in 16% of the workers surveyed, with higher concentration among those over age 65 (38.2%).
Incidence of asbestos-related disease also correlates with length of employment – 12.4% of people with 2 to 6 years of asbestos contact tested positive; 37% of those with 22 to 26 years tested positive. The study on Long Beach Naval Shipyard workers was performed in 1979. Since then the number of asbestos-related deaths worldwide has increased more than 400%.