The New York Shipbuilding Corporation was formed in 1899. The founders of the company originally wanted to locate in New York State, but when they were unable to get the land, they settled for an area on the Delaware River, just outside Camden, New Jersey. During the First World War, New York Shipbuilding became the largest shipyard in the world. It continued as a major shipbuilding company through the Second World War, but went out of business in 1967. During World War II as many as 34,000 people were employed by New York Shipbuilding.
During the years of the New York Shipbuilding Corporation’s operation asbestos was used extensively in shipbuilding because of its insulating ability and almost perfect ability to resist flame. While the industry leaders and the government were becoming aware that asbestos could be harmful (leading to several different lung conditions, such as asbestosis, and even a number of deadly forms of asbestos cancer, such as lung cancer and mesothelioma), workers had no idea. They worked in rooms spraying asbestos onto walls of boilers, and engine rooms of ships. The asbestos dust would get so thick it was like a fog. When the workers went home, they took the dust with them with tragic results. Workers in the shipbuilding industry had almost as high a death rate as soldiers during World War II. Not until the mid 1970’s did stronger regulations come out for asbestos workers. For many, and for anyone who worked at New York Shipbuilding Corporation, that was too late. The damage had already been done.
Asbestos is a mineral made of thin fibers that has been used for centuries because it does not burn. History says that in ancient times the Romans wove asbestos into tablecloths and napkins because they could clean them by throwing them into the fire. Even then, however, some people were aware that something bad happened to the lungs of people who spend too much time around asbestos.
The fine fibers that make up the mineral flake off easily. When the pieces are small they become airborne and anyone in the area can inhale the fibers or dust. When the dust gets into the lungs it interferes with the lungs’ ability to provide oxygen to the body. When a person inhales, oxygen goes into the lungs and into the alveoli within the lungs. These alveoli remove carbon dioxide from the blood, and exchange it for clean oxygen. The carbon dioxide is then exhaled. When asbestos gets into the alveoli the body produces cells to get rid of it. These cells attempt to dissolve the asbestos, but asbestos is resistant, and the process irritates the lining of the lungs.
When the lining of the lungs is irritated long enough, it starts forming scar tissue. This tissue builds up until the alveoli are unable to their job of exchanging carbon dioxide for oxygen efficiently. The person may start feeling out of breath. At first the symptoms may be very mild, but over time they get worse until breathing is painful and difficult. This condition is called asbestosis. There is no cure for asbestosis, and it can lead to further medical problems. As the scar tissue builds up, the lungs lose their elasticity. Blood pressure in the vessels in the heart starts to increase. To combat the increased blood pressure the heart has to work harder. Eventually this can lead to heart failure.
Malignant mesothelioma is also caused by asbestos exposure. It is a serious form of cancer that has very high mortality rates. As with asbestosis, there is no cure. Doctors can treat the symptoms, and they can try to slow the progression of the cancer. In recent years, there have been many developments that not only allow doctors to diagnose these conditions earlier, but that will hopefully allow them to find a cure. In the mean time, people who worked around asbestos, and their family members continue to suffer.