The New London Submarine Base is located just outside Groton, Connecticut on the Thames River. It is one of the oldest Naval bases in the United States. It became a submarine base in 1916, and by 1959 it was the largest submarine base in the world. The base continued to expand through the 1970’s and into the 1980’s. Today, all Navy submarine training is handled at New London.
During the time leading up to World War II, during the war, and in the time immediately following the war, asbestos was used extensively in all shipyards. It has tremendous abilities as a fire retardant, and made the chances of shipboard fires in engines rooms, and near hot pipes much less likely. Unfortunately, asbestos is deadly when small fibers break off and become airborne, as these fibers can be inhaled, which in turn leads to the development of diseases such as asbestosis and mesothelioma (A rare and deadly form of asbestos cancer). Although even the ancient Greeks and Romans were aware that slaves who worked with asbestos seemed to have more lung problems than other people, the dangers of asbestos didn’t really start getting uncovered until the 1940’s. Even then, few if any regulations were put in place to prevent people from contact with asbestos.
During the 1970’s the government began to implement more stringent restrictions and regulations, but even today, people who work in some industries, including those who work in shipyards, continue to have at least some asbestos exposure. During the early days especially, asbestos fibers were thick on workers’ clothes and even family members would be exposed to high levels of asbestos dust and fibers. Additionally, and specific to the New London Navel Base, asbestos was used as a building material. In the early 1990’s an environmental investigation of this base revealed the presence of asbestos in Navy personnel housing. At that time, in 1991 the Navy was still working on removing this asbestos.
The problem with inhalation of asbestos doesn’t manifest itself for many years after initial exposure. Many people go twenty or even thirty years before the real damage starts to show up. The process of asbestos related illness is a slow one. When the asbestos fibers are initially inhaled they travel into the lungs through the trachea. In the lungs the fibers move into the alveoli. Alveoli are small sacks where the lungs draw waste carbon dioxide out of the blood, and exchange it for clean oxygen that the blood stream then pumps to the rest of the body. When asbestos fibers get into the alveoli, the body produces cells to fight off what the body sees as a foreign body. These cells produce a liquid that attempts to dissolve the asbestos fibers, but instead causes irritation to lung tissue.
Over time, the lung tissue develops scars from the constant irritation. This condition is called asbestosis. Initially the scarring may not be noticeable to the person, but over time, the scarring makes it difficult for the alveoli to exchange the waste gas for oxygen. As a result, the person may start feeling out of breath. As the disease progresses the lungs become stiff, and breathing is painful and strenuous. The extra strain causes high blood pressure in the lungs, and can ultimately lead to heart failure. Malignant mesothelioma is also related to general asbestos exposure. This is a form of cancer that attacks the tissue surrounding the lungs. Neither asbestosis nor Malignant mesothelioma are curable with today’s medical technology.
The government has recognized the New London Naval Base as a superfund site because of its levels of contamination. This means that people who worked at this base may have been exposed not only to asbestos, but also to other carcinogenic chemicals.