Members of the U.S. Navy served on ships that they thought were safe. Unfortunately, these ships were made using tons of asbestos-containing construction materials. Asbestos may cause veterans to develop mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer, 20 to 50 years after they were first exposed.
Navy Asbestos Exposure
Americans who served in the U.S. Navy protected our freedom at home and on ships and at bases and ports around the world. While many brave men and women lost their lives fighting for and protecting our nation, countless other Navy veterans now face another battle: mesothelioma.
Navy veterans face a very high and disproportionate risk of developing mesothelioma from being exposed to asbestos in ships. Asbestos was used virtually everywhere in Navy ships for much of the 20th century.
Much like the victims of asbestos exposure, the U.S. military was misled by asbestos companies about the safety of the mineral. Despite the growing body of medical knowledge in the 1930s that exposure to asbestos could lead to health problems like cancer, asbestos companies chose to keep this information secret in an overarching effort to maximize profits.
The U.S. Navy was misled by asbestos companies and continued to use asbestos well into the late 1970s when the government officially issued warnings about the health hazards associated with asbestos. Though the Navy greatly reduced their asbestos use after this, it was too late for many, as thousands of Navy personnel had already been exposed.
Because mesothelioma symptoms can take 20 to 50 years to appear, some individuals who served in the Navy during the 1960s and 70s are only now being diagnosed with the disease.
Asbestos on Ships
Fireproof, lightweight, inexpensive, and corrosion-proof, asbestos was once considered an ideal substance for use in many things, and especially warfare. Every branch of the military used asbestos during the 20th century.
In the Navy, asbestos was considered so important to the military that the U.S. government once mandated its use in shipbuilding. This decision, of course, was made without knowledge of the deadly consequences of asbestos exposure. As a result, it was used extensively throughout ships built from the late 1930s on. The U.S. Navy fleet grew from 394 vessels in 1939 to nearly 7,000 in 1945 due in part to asbestos.
Asbestos covered the interiors of most ships, including:
- Aircraft carriers
- Auxiliary vehicles
- Cargo ships
- Tankers and oilers
- Tenders and tugs
The same properties that made asbestos good for shipbuilding also made it extremely dangerous to humans. When extracted or disturbed in any way, asbestos breaks into tiny fibers, which can be inhaled or ingested. The body cannot process asbestos, so the fibers get stuck. These fibers irritate the body for decades and eventually lead to cancer.
Ship Parts and Places That Used Asbestos
Due to asbestos’s naturally ability to trap heat and sound, it was used mainly as an insulator on Navy vessels. It was often used to line, cover, or pad equipment on the ship to reduce damage from enemy gunfire.
Ship parts that used asbestos include:
- Boilers, boiler linings, and heat shields
- Ceiling and floor tiles
- Deck coverings
- Electrical coating
- Gaskets and valves
- Lagging and rope
- Linings of steel wall plates and doors
Outside of these common parts listed above, asbestos was also used to help protect different areas of the ship. Throughout the ship, asbestos could be found in engine rooms, dining halls, and the crew’s living quarters. Navy barracks and family housing on the land utilized asbestos in its roofing, walls, and shingles.
A sad consequence of abundance, members of the U.S. Navy had nowhere to escape from asbestos—it was virtually everywhere, and being packed in close quarters did not help. There are many stories of sailors sleeping below asbestos-covered pipes waking up to find themselves covered in asbestos dust.
Our Navy Heroes Run the Highest Risk
The sacrifices made by those who served in the Navy go beyond counting. But the unfortunate reality remains: these sacrifices were even bigger than many thought, as thousands of veterans continue to fight for their lives to this day.
A large number of U.S. Navy servicemen and women worked in and around asbestos without even knowing. This is because many manufacturers used asbestos in construction materials and products that were then used in the construction of U.S. Navy vessels and military bases—even though they knew the terrible risks.
33% of all mesothelioma cases have been linked back to asbestos exposure in the military or shipyard.
Navy Ratings at Risk of Exposure
The problem of asbestos exposure in the Navy was not limited to just one rating, location, or type of vessel. Even those who didn’t serve on a Navy vessel directly—but still served in the Navy—were put at risk. Given the poor ventilation on Navy ships, a majority of those on board were likely exposed to asbestos. That said, some jobs aboard these vessels put sailors at an increased risk.
Some ratings with a higher risk of asbestos exposure included:
- Machinist’s Mate: MMs operated and maintained the equipment used for ship propulsion and auxiliary. Machinery such as turbogenerators, pumps, oil purifiers, elevators, refrigeration plants, air conditioning systems, and desalination plants may have contained asbestos.
- Boiler Technician: BTs maintain and repair all mechanisms related to the steam propulsion systems including testing inventories and supplies of water and fuel, whether the engines are powered from electricity, gas, or nuclear energy.
- Engineman: Enginemen operate, service, and repair internal combustion engines used to power U.S. Navy ships. Asbestos was frequently used to maintain the engine and the area surrounding it.
- Gas Turbine System Technician: GSs operate and maintain gas turbine engines, main propulsion machinery and control systems including gears, shafting, controllable pitch propellers, auxiliary equipment, and electronic circuitry.
- Electrician’s Mate: EMs must operate and fix all of the electrical equipment onboard a Navy ship. Because asbestos doesn’t conduct electricity, it was often used to insulate electrical wiring and to maintain other equipment.
U.S. Shipyards—Hot Zones by State
Shipbuilders, maintenance workers, and those who decommissioned ships were also at risk of exposure. Their jobs demanded that they construct, repair, and renovate ships that heavily relied on asbestos. As a result, it would be easy for them to inhale or ingest the fibers.
Unfortunately, the asbestos risk extended to the families of those workers. Due to the natural properties of asbestos, which makes it easily cling to cloth and other materials, asbestos fibers could have easily been brought home with workers on their clothes, shoes, and hair.
This map shows the number of shipyards per state.
Next Steps for Navy Vets
If you or a family member served in the U.S. Navy during the past few decades and have experienced symptoms such as trouble breathing, a persistent cough, and fatigue, see your doctor immediately to be checked for mesothelioma. Make sure to tell your doctor about your exposure to asbestos during your service.
If a mesothelioma diagnosis is confirmed, there are some important actions to consider. First, you could file a disability claim through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). You should also seek the counsel of a mesothelioma law firm, as filing an asbestos-related claim can be hard without legal guidance and expertise.
Fortunately, Sokolove Law has highly experienced mesothelioma attorneys on-hand to help you. Several of our attorneys are accredited through the VA, meaning they can make sure you get all the benefits you are entitled to.