Asbestos Use on Navy Minesweepers

Summary

From World War II onwards, Navy minesweepers played an essential role in destroying sea mines and creating a safe path through the ocean. However, due to how these ships were constructed, many sailors and workers may be at risk of developing mesothelioma due to asbestos exposure.

Unfortunately, asbestos was a cheap and durable substance at the time, so it was used throughout all shipbuilding to insulate and control potential fires. Inhaling these toxic fibers could have put all persons on board at risk.

About U.S. Navy Minesweepers

The first U.S. Navy minesweeper was constructed in 1917 and was named USS Lapwing—after the bird of the same name known for its irregular wingbeat when flying. The job of a minesweeper was to sweep the seas of various mines.

Minesweepers were equipped with devices to cut mooring lines and destroy the mine when it rose to the surface. Their secondary job was to clear a path through minefields so that other warships could proceed to battle. Because ship production didn’t begin until mid-way through WWI, their impact wasn’t apparent until WWII when they made significant advancements and deployed 480 ships.

Minesweepers were vitally needed, but as with all shipbuilding during this time, there were substantial numbers of sailors and workers who suffered from asbestos-related diseases as a result.

The use of asbestos was prevalent as it was deemed a safe substance to protect against heat and fire. In 1940, the U.S. used 439,000 tons of asbestos in shipbuilding efforts alone.

Asbestos Use in Navy Minesweepers

From the 1930s onward, minesweeper ships were made using hundreds of asbestos-containing products. As the material was versatile, inexpensive and lightweight, it made the ideal substance in ship construction. Asbestos was also notoriously flame-retardant, making it useful around high-heat objects, like engine boilers.

Asbestos-Based Protective Clothing

One of the most unfortunate ways in which workers were exposed was through their own ‘protective’ clothing. They were often given gloves made from asbestos to handle hot equipment on the ship.

Vermiculite wall insulation was also used in living quarters to protect workers from potential fires elsewhere on the vessel.

Ship Maintenance

Asbestos was not deemed dangerous when it remained whole, but over time the fibers in the asbestos began to break up and become airborne.

Whenever routine maintenance was carried out on minesweepers, asbestos was disturbed and the harmful particles released into the air. This would be dangerous under any circumstance, but even more so in the confined spaces of a ship’s boiler room, for example.

Asbestos fibers were notorious for clinging to hair, shoes and clothing, meaning that they could be transported to other areas of the ship and contaminate workers who would not, ordinarily, ever come into contact with asbestos.

MJN Brief

A 2007 study found that workers from a U.S. shipyard experienced an excess of mesothelioma of the pleura (lungs) and peritoneum (abdomen) from their exposure to asbestos from 1950 to 1964. They found that there were high rates of asbestos-related diseases not only in those who worked on the ships, but also office workers and guards in the area who had no direct contact with asbestos.

Types Asbestos Products Used in Navy Minesweepers

Asbestos was used in hundreds of products onboard a minesweeper vessel, predominantly to protect workers against fire and heat.

These are some types of asbestos products used in Navy minesweepers:

  • Insulation lining and blankets for boilers
  • Asbestos cement, cloth and pipe covering around steam pipes
  • Packing, felts and gasket coverings
  • Auxiliary exhaust insulations
  • Air compressors
  • Distilling apparatus
  • Spray-on, block, loose-fill and pipe-wrap insulation
  • Fireproof protective clothing
  • Cement and mortar powder
  • Floor and ceiling tiles
  • Firewall and heat control products

High Asbestos-Risk Occupations on Navy Minesweepers

The most high-risk workers included those who spent the majority of their time in the engine rooms and boiler rooms, as asbestos was used to line these heated units.

The asbestos would break up over time. When it needed to be replaced, the workers would have to chop up the remaining asbestos, discard it and add new sheets, causing clouds of asbestos-containing dust that, once inhaled, could be detrimental to health.

Other dangerous occupations for Navy minesweepers include:

  • Shipyard workers
  • Construction workers
  • Painters
  • Pipefitters
  • Electricians
  • Welders
  • Plumbers
  • Maintenance
  • Contractors

Help for Navy Veterans With Mesothelioma

U.S. Navy veterans who served or worked in the construction of Navy minesweepers may be at risk of developing asbestos-related illnesses, such as mesothelioma. Mesothelioma can take up to 50 years to develop, so the amount of workers affected is not currently known. There are procedures to help those with mesothelioma, but it is essential to seek the help of a mesothelioma specialist to receive a quick diagnosis.

If you’re a Navy veteran who has developed mesothelioma, you may be eligible for VA benefits. Contact our qualified VA-Accredited Claims Agents today for more information.

View Author and Sources
Sources
  1. Shipyard workers and asbestos: a persistent and international problem. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2078396/. Accessed on April 22, 2018
  2. Minesweeper. Retrieved from: https://www.britannica.com/technology/minesweeper. Accessed on April 22, 2018
  3. Asbestos and Ship-Building: Fatal Consequences. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2604477/. Accessed on April 22, 2018

Last modified: May 24, 2018