Military Occupational Hazards, Part I: Understanding the Link Between the U.S. Navy and Asbestos

This two-part series explores one of the most common occupational hazards associated with the U.S. military—asbestos—and mesothelioma, the most serious of its potential consequences. In part one, we will examine the widespread and fatal connection that runs between the U.S. Navy and the ill-fated building material, asbestos.

For millions of veterans of the U.S. Navy, asbestos posed a significant and horrifically dangerous risk to which most all who found themselves exposed were neither aware of nor protected against. Today, those who work with the toxic carcinogen are required to wear heavy-duty protective gear—called HAZMAT suits—that shield them from the microscopic, cancer-causing fibers that asbestos materials can release. But prior to widespread awareness—and federal regulation—of the one-time “miracle of manufacturing,” countless individuals became victims of this oft-dubbed “silent killer.”

In one of the most tragic of these scenarios, shipman of the navy and asbestos collided paths when its many construction materials were routinely used in the building of military ships. This phenomenon occurred across the United States prior to the 1970s, when the military became aware of the dangers associated with asbestos exposure and ceased its use.

Until that time, virtually every position held on a navy ship came into regular and repeated contact with asbestos—from mechanics to boilermakers. Even cooks and janitors—those who held completely non-technical jobs—were exposed, and thus placed at risk for mesothelioma and other related illnesses. This was because asbestos-containing materials were used to make walls, doors, ceilings and flooring—potentially any part of the ships were likely to have contained at least traces of its deadly fibers. Mess halls and sleeping quarters were constructed with asbestos just the same as engine and boiler rooms. In essence, no place was safe.

For the U.S. Navy, asbestos presents an ideal compositional material for its battleships. Heralded as exceptionally strong and virtually flame retardant, it was used to create fireproof structures intended to adequately withstand enemy attack and keep shipman safe. In a tragic and ultimately deadly twist of irony, it did the exact opposite.

In the long run, exposure to asbestos was found to cause malignant mesothelioma and other serious and often life-threatening conditions—among these, other forms of cancer and asbestosis. Because damaging crystal-like fibers, which are disseminated into the air for ingestion or inhalation after asbestos is broken apart, can be embedded in a victim’s organs for decades before illness develops, thousands of veterans are at risk—as many as forty or more years post-exposure.

Perhaps most troublesome of all is the fact that for the navy, asbestos risks were likely unknown or severely underestimated; however, manufacturers of asbestos are now known to have been aware of those dangers long before the information was made common knowledge. As such, the businesses that were profiting from the sale of asbestos chose to place importance on their own profits over the safety and health of millions of American workers—including military vets.

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