The Navy’s use of asbestos exposed millions of veterans to were exposed to its harmful effects. Now, thousands of veterans and former shipyard workers are developing mesothelioma.
Asbestos appeared to be the perfect insulation for heat-producing mechanisms in warships, due to its ability to resist corrosion and extreme heat.
Throughout the 20th Century, particularly during World War II and the early Cold War years, massive amounts of asbestos were used in shipyards for the building of new ships. Asbestos use continued to expand as asbestos manufacturing companies assisted in writing specifications for products on U.S. Navy ships. During this time, hundreds of thousands of sailors and shipyard workers were being exposed to the harmful effects of asbestos by breathing the tiny fibers caused by the cutting and handling of this harmful insulation.
Based on the following fatality statistics, working in an American shipyard during World War II was nearly as dangerous as fighting in the war.
16.1 million Americans were called to fight for their country during World War II. The rate of death during combat was approximately 18 per 1000. In contrast, 4.3 million Americans worked in shipyards throughout the time of the war. For every 1000 shipyard employees, approximately 14 died from mesothelioma. In addition, an unknown number died from asbestosis or complications from it.
No location aboard ship was safe. Although fire and engine rooms were more commonly thought to pose danger, the hazardous zones extended to include sleeping quarters, mess halls, and navigation rooms. Even family members became affected.
Here are a few examples of the type of personnel, jobs, and situations where people were exposed:
- Boiler Tender
- Seabee (military construction)
- Fireman (in engine room)
- Engine Mechanic
- Shipfitter (First Class Petty Officer, E6)
Those working with submarines faced a higher fatality rate – in fact, more submarine builders died from asbestos exposure than those killed serving in submarines during World War II. However, unlike other mass tragedies, this one has taken four decades to unfold.
Veterans and shipyard workers were not the only ones at risk. During the 50 years leading up to the mid-1970s, the asbestos industry manufactured insulation products that were installed in almost every building, home, school, ship, car, and plane in America. These manufacturers knew the long-term effects of asbestos, but chose to ignore the dangers.
In 1984 a medical survey of shipyard workers at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth found that 79 percent of workers showed possible lung abnormalities related to asbestos exposure. In a related survey, X-rays were given to 90 wives of shipyard workers, and 8-9 percent of these women showed similar abnormalities.
Early Navy Studies Indicate Health Risks
There is ample documentation revealing that the civilian asbestos industry concealed the risks of asbestos exposure from the public and even its own workers. Despite the industry’s attempts to hide the truth, federal health officials, including Navy doctors and other government health experts, discovered the risks of working with this deadly material. Naval medical authorities became aware of the threat of asbestos quite early.
In 1922, the Navy published a medical bulletin listing an occupation dealing with asbestos as hazardous, and strongly recommended the use of respirators in the workplace.
Handbooks developed in the late 1930s for Navy medical corpsmen explained the risks the workers faced. In 1941, the Navy’s chief officer for preventive medicine wrote: “I am certain that we are not protecting the men as we should.”
Aware of the problem, the Navy issued a document at the height of the wartime shipbuilding effort in 1943 specifying “Minimum Requirements for Safety and Industrial Health in Contract Shipyards.” These standards included: regulation of asbestos work in all yards that built or repaired Navy ships, segregation of dust-producing jobs, ventilation of dusty areas, and the requirement of all workers to wear respirators and receive periodic medical exams. It was assumed that shipyards would uphold these standards.
A World War II era Navy industrial health officer later testified that the Navy chose to ignore these rules in favor of higher production levels, rather than minimized health risks.
The Navy used 298 products containing asbestos in its ships. It would have taken many years and millions of dollars to safely remove and replace this insulation; the Navy was more concerned about funds, possible asbestos alternatives, and military awareness. Investigators have shown that the Navy dragged its feet in removing asbestos from its ships and in finding alternatives to this deadly product.
More than 40 years after this exposure, hundreds of people continue get sick each year, due to the long dormancy periods of these illnesses. This scourge is not expected to taper off for another ten years or so.
Dr. Stephen Matarese, a lung specialist, doesn’t expect the number of deaths to cease until about 2025, due to the period of 10-50 years in which asbestos-related cancers remain inactive.
Many navy veterans are being diagnosed with mesothelioma decades after they served their country. Not knowing that their exposure to asbestos might cut their lives short, they have raised families and built careers, and now many of them will be cheated from the pleasure of their golden years.