Veterans of the Navy With Mesothelioma: Shipyard Asbestos

This three-part series, dedicated to veteran victims of mesothelioma, is designed to provide information and resources to those that have been affected by toxic asbestos exposure while serving in the U.S. Navy. Though every branch of the military employed the use of asbestos materials in construction projects completed during the mid-part of the 20th century, none did so as heavily and to such an extreme degree as the navy. As a result, millions of service men and women were exposed to a highly toxic carcinogen without having any idea their lives-or the lives of their families-were in danger.

In PART II, we’ll further explore the factors that influenced military use of asbestos-including the navy-issued mandate of 1929 that filled virtually every shipyard with its dangerous fibers-as well as exactly where asbestos could be found on ships and who among today’s vets may be at the most risk from past exposure.

During the period between the World War I and the Korean Conflict, the prevalence of shipyard asbestos reached an unprecedented level. Anyone enlisted in the U.S. Navy during that four-decade period was almost certainly exposed to some degree of asbestos debris, now known to be the primary cause of mesothelioma and other serious health conditions.

The Mandate of 1929 and Reasons for Asbestos Usage

The sheer level of combat activity demanded of the U.S. military in the years surrounding both World Wars placed an unprecedented demand for the construction of tanks, fighter jets and battleships. The complexity of building combat vessels, in addition to the massive number of materials required for shipbuilding, let the navy to issue a mandate in 1929 requiring that asbestos products be used whenever possible in all new construction products.

Asbestos was ideal for this purpose, as it was durable and able to resist extremely high temperatures and flames-both liabilities endured in the thick of battle. Because it was used to make thousands of building and mechanical components, asbestos on navy ships was in everything from concrete flooring to ceiling tiles-and lots of things in between. Most insulation materials contained asbestos fibers, as did gaskets, valves and cables. Shipyard asbestos was present virtually everywhere, both aboard vessels and in the storage yards where they were housed.

Identifying Those at the Greatest Risk of Asbestos-Related Illnesses

Because asbestos was everywhere, veterans’ mesothelioma is a very real and present danger for anyone enlisted during the shipbuilding heyday of the mid-20th century. Some of the onboard positions identified as having the highest risk of heavy exposure include:

  • -Boilermakers, Boiler-tenders and Boiler Room Technicians
  • -Engine Mechanics and Enginemen
  • -Fire Control Technicians
  • -Damage Controlmen
  • -Shipfitters and Pipefitters
  • -Welders and Steelworkers

Additionally, shipyard asbestos was considered to be of particular concern for those who worked aboard older vessels. Because asbestos-made materials become dangerous when they are damaged or disturbed-causing tiny, toxic particles to be released into the air-ships that had endured considerable wear and tear were most likely to harbor disintegrating asbestos components, increasing the likelihood of potentially fatal exposure.

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