Shipbuilding: High Risk of Asbestos Exposure and Mesothelioma

Experts have always listed shipbuilding as one of the occupations where asbestos exposure and subsequent asbestos diseases was very likely to be a risk—especially until the middle of the 20thcentury. Now, a new Italian study has confirmed this, finding a “high incidence of mesothelioma” among shipbuilders who worked in Monfalcone in the 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s.

Mesothelioma is a rare and deadly form of cancer that affects the delicate linings of the lungs, heart, and abdominal cavity. The only known cause of mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos, and it is sometimes difficult to track the source of the exposure because the disease often does not present symptoms until up to 50 years after exposure. In this study, researchers from the Center for the Study of Environmental Cancer studied the 1942 hiring records of the Monfalcone shipyard, then compared them with health records from local hospitals decades later.

In 1942 alone, a total of 2,776 shipyard workers were hired. Data from the Pathological Anatomy Unit shows that in the area’s two hospitals between the years of 1981 and 2005, 18 of the men hired in 1943 had developed pleural mesothelioma. One-third of these cases occurred in workers who were only 14 or 15 years old at the time of hiring/exposure, and only about 20 percent of all workers hired were in this age group. This data led researchers to conclude that the risk of developing mesothelioma is higher the younger a person is exposed to asbestos.

A number of parts or features of ships created in the 40’s through the 60’s contain dangerous asbestos, and shipbuilders in the United States faced similar risks to those outlined in the Italian study. Because asbestos is a strong, heat resistant, and non-corrosive fiber, it was used in almost all aspects of a ship, from the kitchen to the engine room. The men and women who helped build and repair these ships weren’t the only people at risk: sailors who lived and worked on the ships were also at risk for asbestos exposure. Between 1982 and 2000 in Hampton Roads, Virginia, a shipbuilding town, 632 cases of mesothelioma were reported—that is seven times the national average.

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