Asbestos Exposure on Destroyers

The U.S. Navy describes destroyers as “fast warships providing multi-mission offensive and defensive capability, independently or in fleet support”. They were created for the purpose of protecting larger vessels; and although the first destroyer appeared in 1902, this class of ship really came into prominence during World War II.

During the war years, destroyers served as escorts for battleships and aircraft carriers entering enemy waters, rescued downed pilots, patrolled the waters, and attacked enemy convoys trying to land reinforcements. According to naval records, as of December 31, 1944, there were 367 destroyers on active duty.

The Structural Design of Destroyers Made their Personnel Highly Susceptible to Asbestos Exposure

Just as in the other vessels it commissioned, the Navy specified the use of asbestos-containing materials in the “tin cans,” a common nickname given to World War I and II destroyers because their hull plating was so thin, the sailors said it had to be made from tin cans. And just like tin cans, these ships had tight quarters that were also poorly ventilated. This resulted in sailors coming into constant contact with asbestos-containing materials. These materials were used in boiler and engine rooms, navigation rooms, sleeping quarters and mess halls.

Asbestos pads were used to cover equipment that reached high temperatures during operation. These pads had to be removed before maintenance of the machinery and this removal released substantial amounts of asbestos into the air.

Other routine uses of asbestos included as a strengthening agent in cement for patching insulation on pipes and pieces of the bulkhead, and as packing around valve fittings and gaskets. The cement had to be mixed with water before it could be applied, and this released asbestos fibers into the air. Packing materials disintegrated because of the wear and tear caused by the intense heat, and it had to be removed and new packing applied. This was another way in which personnel were exposed to significant quantities of asbestos.

The extent to which asbestos was used was typified by an investigation that was done on a decommissioned World War II destroyer. According to John D. Craighead, author of Asbestos and its Diseases (Oxford University Press, USA, February, 2008), the investigation showed that “the amount of amosite asbestos in boiler room insulation, in any one vessel, could range from 5% to 99%.”

The Destroyer’s Mission also Made its Personnel Prone to Asbestos Exposure

During World War II, the Navy had to reinvent the destroyer so that it could ward off attacks from the newer, more efficient submarines, and defend against the increasing use of aircraft. In addition to the armaments they already had, such as light guns, depth charges and torpedoes, these destroyers had heavier, five inch guns as well as machine guns. With each new class of destroyer developed during the war, the firepower was significantly increased.

However, all of this additional firepower had an unintended byproduct. As guns were fired, the vibrations released particles from fraying asbestos materials into the air, causing those around the falling debris to be seriously exposed to asbestos fibers.

Destroyers Where Asbestos Exposure is a Risk

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