The United States Coast Guard employs a permanent fleet of ships, called cutters, used for coastal patrols and rescues. Each of these ships is at least 65 feet long and is assigned a full-time crew. Before 1980 many of these ships were built using asbestos, putting their crews at risk of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related health conditions. Shipyard workers who constructed coast guard cutters were also exposed to asbestos, sometimes directly handling the substance.
About US Coast Guard Cutters
The US Coast Guard plays a critical role in America’s maritime activity, protecting the coastline through law enforcement and search and rescue initiatives. They work alongside the military to defend the United States and currently employ 38,000 active-duty and 8,000 reserve force members of the military.
U.S. Coast Guard cutters all receive the USCGC designation before their names, and carry crews of 75 to 150 people. Cutters were initially used by the Coast Guard in regular patrol and search and rescue activities. However, the Navy began to deploy cutters in their military efforts during wartime, leading to the Coast Guard becoming a branch of the military service.
Asbestos was a popular shipbuilding material because it is light, inexpensive and highly resistant to water. It has fire-proofing and insulating capabilities—both ideal qualities for materials used in a contained environment like a water vessel. At first glance, asbestos seemed like the perfect material for the Coast Guard and other military branches to use in their ships, and it was a favored construction substance for several decades.
Asbestos Use in Coast Guard Cutters
The Coast Guard followed the military’s lead when it came to asbestos, which meant that it was used abundantly. The material was reliable and sturdy and fared well against the rough conditions of the sea.
Asbestos’ inflammable qualities made it an ideal choice for a ship, minimizing the impact of fires caused by accident or attack. Asbestos is nearly impossible to catch on fire, preventing flames from spreading throughout the ship. This ability to fireproof ships and protect crews from fire made asbestos an obvious choice.
Asbestos is also an excellent insulator. While it’s best recognized for its use in homes, it played a similar role in ships, keeping crews warm through regulated and reliable temperature. In addition, the light and buoyant nature of asbestos didn’t weight the cutters down.
Because of all the qualities that made asbestos an ideal material, it was used in cutters’ sleeping quarters, boiler rooms, mess halls, engine rooms, flooring and walls.
Unfortunately, all of the asbestos use came at a toll. The United States thought they were protecting the Coast Guard by using the material, but instead were exposing the crews to a highly toxic material. It continues to cause significant health problems for veterans today.
Types Asbestos Products Used in Cutters
Asbestos products were used throughout Coast Guard cutters because of its versatile applications. In many ways, it seemed like a miracle material, solving a lot of challenges at a low cost.
Asbestos in cutters was used in:
- Insulation, including sprays, loose fills, blocks and in pipe wrapping
- Fireproof paper, substances, blankets and clothing
- Coating electrical wires
- Rods, ropes, cables
- Boiler liners, gaskets, and valves
- Ceiling and floor tiles
- Mortar powder, ammunition and weapons
- Cement, paint, caulking, sealant and adhesives
Coast Guard Cutter Workers at Highest Asbestos Risk
Coast Guard workers during World War II were at the highest risk of developing asbestos-related illnesses because these individuals served during a time where asbestos was highly used. Veterans who either built or worked on the cutters between 1939 and 1945 may find themselves victim to this rampant asbestos use.
Coast Guardsmen who worked in areas with poor or no ventilation are also at an increased risk of harm from asbestos. These occupations often took place in boiler rooms and engine rooms, where workers would spend entire shifts in asbestos-laden areas of the ship without much airflow.
In the 1980s, when the dangers and hazards of asbestos became well-known, the Coast Guard phased out asbestos use in cutters. However, this change in materials was too late for many of the loyal Coast Guard workers who had either built or manned the cutters filled with asbestos.
Help for US Coast Guard Workers With Mesothelioma
U.S. Coast Guard workers who served before the 1980s are at risk of developing asbestos-related conditions, including mesothelioma. Known for its ability to remain dormant for decades, mesothelioma only reveals symptoms decades after its initial exposure. As a result, mesothelioma is one of the deadliest forms of cancer.