Navy Veterans, Shipyard Workers and Asbestos Exposure Risks

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Asbestos fibers and asbestos health risks to Navy personnel and shipyard workers are inescapable and will remain so as long as there is a ship with an asbestos containing material on it being built, used, or taken apart.

The U.S. government once mandated the use of asbestos in its military equipment contracts. Asbestos was used in over 300 products on ships, particularly for insulation and anything that had to stand up to the heat of engine rooms. During the massive buildup of the U.S. fleet during World War II, tens of thousands of shipyard workers labored in conditions that were extensively contaminated with asbestos dust. They cut premolded asbestos insulation with saws, removed insulation with jackhammers, sometimes worked in fogs of asbestos dust, and emerged at the end of the workday looking like they had just walked through a blizzard. Yet they had no protective gear, for asbestos was considered a nuisance, not a health hazard.

High Risk Job SitesThe Navy command, however, was not ignorant of asbestos�s health hazards. In 1939, for instance, in a report on health conditions in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the Navy’s Surgeon General stated, “Asbestosis is an industrial disease of the lungs incident to the inhalation of asbestos dust for prolonged periods.” The report pointed out that the yard’s pipe-coverers and insulators were exposed to such dust. But ship production took precedence over shipbuilder safety.

Once the asbestos was built into the ship, exposure was unavoidable for those seamen who worked and lived there. Close quarters and poor ventilation brought fibers from friable materials in contact with the lungs of anybody who had to draw breath. Some sailors recount sleeping in bunks stacked below asbestos-covered pipes, which flaked off so badly that they had to shake the dust out of their bedding every day. Repairs on pipes and ducts might involve cutting away the asbestos insulation with power tools and then cutting new pieces to fit, generating yet more dust.

Even after the Navy began an asbestos abatement program, Navy personnel were not properly protected from asbestos materials. An article in the Washington Post in 1979 reported instances of abatement actions for which the Navy called in civilian crews to remove asbestos-containing materials, but then directed its own personnel to sweep up after them, unprotected. One veteran reported they had only the gauze masks “we borrowed on our own from the civilian workers.”

Types of MesotheliomaYears of exposure to asbestos fibers took their toll on shipyard workers and Navy veterans, who are among those most likely to develop asbestos-related diseases. For every 1,000 workers in shipyards during WWII, about 14 died of asbestos-related diseases, nearly rivaling the combat death rate of 18 per 1,000. It is estimated that over 30 percent of those who have been diagnosed with mesothelioma, the asbestos cancer of the tissues lining the chest, heart, or abdominal cavities, are either Navy veterans or former shipyard workers.

Increased rates of mesothelioma cases have been documented in ship fitters, foremen, riggers, foundry workers, boiler makers, engineers, maintenance supervisors, pipe fitters and sheet metal workers.

In the 21st century, very few asbestos-containing materials are now being fitted into new ships. However, there’s a new chapter to the story of asbestos health risks in the US as the Navy sells off its obsolete fleet for scrap. Since the early 1990s, dozens of ships have been sold and are being dismantled. “Shipbreakers” scrap ships, very often in depressed port areas, without training for the handling of asbestos, and without protective measures for the workers.

Until this very dirty industry is regulated with rules that stick, asbestos will continue to harm yet another category of shipyard worker, with lifelong consequences for those exposed.

‘Navy Veterans, Shipyard Workers, & Asbestos’ Resources:

1. Burke, Bill. “Shipbuilding’s Deadly Legacy.”, The Virginian-Pilot. May 6-10, 2001.

Accessed: August 27, 2007

2. Olson, W. “Dangerous When In Power: Does government protect us from hazardous products, or does it put us in harm’s way?”, Reason Magazine. March 2007.

Accessed: September 25, 2007.

3. Murray, Patty. “Asbestos Bill Introduced: Murray’s Floor Statement.” U.S. Senator Patty Murray, June 18, 2002
Accessed: October 2, 2007.

4. Richards, Bill. “Sailor Says Navy Lax on Asbestos Peril.” Washington Post. October 19, 1979.

5. Hinds, Ward M., M.D., MPH. “Mesothelioma in Shipyard Workers.” Western Journal of Medicine. 1978. vol. 128 (2):169-170.

6. Englund, Will. and Cohn, Gary. “The Shipbreakers: Scrapping Ships, Sacrificing Men.”, The Baltimore Sun. December 7, 1997.

Accessed: September 25, 2007.