Ships of the U.S. Navy fleet built prior to the mid-1970s were floating asbestos traps. The fire-resistant, insulating, nearly indestructible fibrous material could be found everywhere in a ship, in at least 300 different materials—some of them highly friable, meaning they could easily become powdered or flake off into a fine, dangerous dust.
The close quarters and sometimes poor ventilation increased the impact when asbestos fibers were damaged or disturbed and escaped into the air. A typical four-year term of service set a sailor up for severe asbestos-related disease 30, 40, or even 50 to 60 years later. Among occupational groups, Navy veterans are one of the most at risk for the development of asbestosis and asbestos cancers, including both lung cancer and mesothelioma.
It is estimated that over 30 percent of current sufferers of mesothelioma are either Navy veterans or former shipyard workers. Increased rates of malignant mesothelioma cases have been documented in ship fitters, foremen, riggers, foundry workers, boiler makers, engineers, maintenance supervisors, pipe fitters andsheet metal workers, with pleural mesothelioma being the most common form of the cancer by a large margin.
The Navy was not ignorant of the dangers of asbestos. In 1922, the Navy issued a medical bulletin that put asbestos work in a list of hazardous occupations and suggested the use of respirators. By the late 1930s, corpsman were given handbooks advising them of asbestos hazards. But the Navy did not enforce its own recommendations, and it did not inform sailors of asbestos hazards. Veterans interviewed 30 to 40 years after their service recall living and working in highly contaminated environments without warning or protection.
Navy veteran James F. Murphy, diagnosed with asbestosis, served for four years in the 1950s. He describes asbestos being virtually everywhere: “part of heating pipes, air vents and insulation panels… in the sleeping compartments, mess hall, passageways, gun mounts, and engine and boiler rooms. Every time the guns were fired, I remember, tiny fibers would float into the air, onto our clothing and bunks.”
Another Navy veteran, B. L. Kleeberger, describes working in the boiler room of a destroyer. “Cleaning fire boxes and/or blowing out tubes with rotary air brushes would cause me to cough up dust and slag for days afterwards… Nothing in the way of respiratory protection was ever mentioned or available to any of us doing those jobs and complaining did not get you anywhere. Most of us used white handkerchiefs or rag masks as our only breathing protection.”
In the 1970s, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began the asbestos reform campaign, the Navy was slow to respond. It wasn’t until 1983 that the first Navy Occupational Safety and Health (NAVOSH) Program Manual was implemented. It applies to all Navy civilian and military personnel and operations ashore or afloat. The Navy Asbestos Control Program, part of the NAVOSH program, ensures compliance with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) asbestos-related regulations.
As a response to public demand that the Navy take some responsibility for the safety of its personnel, the U.S. Navy Asbestos Medical Surveillance Program was established in the late 1970s. It includes a database maintained by the Navy Environmental Health Center. Navy personnel are interviewed to determine their degree of asbestos exposure, and they undergo periodic chest x-rays. Information stored includes medical examinations and radiographic examinations. The data are periodically analyzed to look for trends in degrees of asbestos exposure and abnormal findings on chest x-rays.
A recent study shows that for the decade of 1990-1999, abnormal pleural findings seem to be decreasing in young and middle-aged male personnel, while the incidence of pleural findings in those over 60 years of age has not decreased significantly. This suggests that the Navy’s efforts to reduce asbestos exposure are helping middle-aged and younger personnel. Older people, primarily veterans over the age of 60, would have had enough exposure in earlier years to result in the pleural changes now being observed. For these men, reduced asbestos exposure over the last 20 years would be a case of too little, too late.
Hinds, Ward M., M.D., MPH. “Mesothelioma in Shipyard Workers.” Western Journal of Medicine. 1978. vol. 128 (2):169-170.
Burke, Bill. “Shipbuilding’s Deadly Legacy.”, http://hamptonroads.com/pilotonline/special/asbestos/index.html, The Virginian-Pilot. May 6-10, 2001.
Accessed: August 27, 2007.
Bohnker, B.K. et al. “Trends in Pleural Radiographic Findings in the Navy Asbestos Medical Surveillance Program.” Military Medicine. May, 2005. vol. 170 (5):375-380.