Asbestosis in the navy

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A disease from 4,000 years of history revealed by the end of XX century.


Scientific reports on asbestos and lung cancer associations, former military navy and merchant sailors diagnosed with asbestosis and mesothelioma navy veterans claims supported with attorneys are news that have been appearing the newspapers and media. Although the main enemy of a navy are usually another country ships and planes, scientific findings have been showing in the last years that with some materials that were used to build ships and buildings had toxic components for human health that could lead to asbestosis or mesothelioma. It was very unfortunate because when these ships, constructed before 1970s which such dangerous materials were designed to follow strict safety measures. However, at that time, it is almost possible to predict that asbestos were among these kinds of toxic components. In my opinion, it was a matter of bad luck rather than any government fault. In fact, this problem should not affect only to one countries navy, but this could be highly spread to almost all navies in the world. It is also a problem of buildings, factories and many other installations designed and built more than 40 years ago, until the early 1970s.

It was a material with long history and frequently used in construction. Asbestos is a chemical complex composed of six naturally occurring silicate minerals,which all have in common their eponymous asbesto-related form habit. They are long and elongated in thin fibrous crystals, with each visible fiber composed of millions of microscopic “fibrils”. This is one of the perils because they can be easily released by abrasion and other processes and be inhaled by people in the neighborhood. They exists in several colors, such as blue asbestos, brown asbestos, white asbestos, and green asbestos.

Asbestos were collected more than 4,000 years ago, but large-scale mining began at the end of the 19th century, when manufacturers and builders began using asbestos because of its desirable physical features such as sound absorption, average tensile strength, its resistance to fire, heat, electrical and chemical damage, and affordability. As we can see they look very appropriate for constructing ships, to reduce the sound and because of its resistance to many potential situations that can be found in a battle, such as fire, heat and chemical damage. It was used in such applications as electrical insulation for hotplate wiring and in building insulation. When asbestos is used for its resistance to fire or heat, the fibers are often mixed with cement or woven into fabric or mats. These desirable properties made asbestos a very widely used material, and its use continued to grow throughout most of the 20th century. For ships it was part of the construction until early 1970s, where the knowledge of carcinogenic effects of asbestos dust caused its effective prohibition as a mainstream construction and fireproofing material in most countries.

Inhalation of asbestos fibers


Scientifically, it has been shown that a prolonged inhalation of asbestos fibers can cause serious and fatal illnesses including lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis (a type of pneumoconiosis). Although health issues related to asbestos exposure can be found in records dating back to Roman times, the beginning of the 20th century showed more cases which escalated in severity during the 1920s and 1930s.

Although it is a very dangerous diseases, the asbestos-related diseases can emerge decades after exposure ceases, have resulted in asbestos claims becoming the longest, most expensive mass attorneys tasks in U.S. history and a much lesser legal issue in most other countries involved.

From carriers to destroyers and amphibious ships

Inside a ship, there were some areas free of asbestos, mainly closer to decks. However, lower levels below the deck had much more components of asbestos. Ships in different categories had been reported with some components with asbestos. For example, aircraft Carriers built prior to the 1970s used asbestos in various equipment from the engine and boiler spaces to turbines, boilers, pumps, electrical components, and valves. Gaskets and packing within the valves were also made from asbestos. This exposed many sailors to potential harm, many of whom are now being diagnosed with mesothelioma. Amphibious ships built from the mid-1930s until the 1970s made use of asbestos in much of the equipment on board, such as boilers, turbines, pumps, valves, and other propulsion equipment. Similarly, battleships constructed until early 1940ss, had asbestos which where used in boilers, turbines, pumps, valves, electrical components, and other equipment commonly found on Navy ships. For this kind of ships, the high risk is located at the operation, repair, and maintenance of this equipment in the fire rooms below deck. Most Cruisers were built and operated during the peak of use of asbestos for military vessels. Asbestos was utilized in much of the on board equipment, including boilers, pumps, valves, and turbines. Destroyers constructed before 1970s had some asbestos-related components in much of the equipment in the engine and boiler spaces, including turbines, boilers, pumps, valves, and other equipment. The case of submarines is also important because the small and sealed space made potentially dangerous to inhale air with high concentration of asbestos fibers composed of millions of microscopic “fibrils”. Again, before 1970s, submarines were built with a significant amount of asbestos-containing equipment such as boilers, packing, pumps, and valves were all made with asbestos. Sailors were at risk of developing mesothelioma. Another class of support vessels, such as Escort Carriers, were also in similar situation. Boilers, pumps, valves, turbines, and other steam propulsion equipment utilized the carcinogen, leaving those who worked in boiler and engine spaces at especially high risk of exposure.

Rooms and areas with highest asbestos risk.


Most of the navies in the world, if not all, in the 1920s and 1930s, used materials containing asbestos to build, repair and maintain its growing fleet of ships. Large quantities of the cancer-causing mineral were therefore present in many different rooms such as engine rooms, deck flooring, walls, doors and miles of piping. Among all of sailors those with specific tasks which spent more time in those areas and facilities had more risk to develop the illness. These ratings and ranks include: Hull technicians and engineers, boiler tenders, shipfitters, engine mechanics, and welders.

It was not only that the areas and rooms were contaminated with the material, the main problem was that often asbestos fibers were released into the air while performing normal work duties. When sailors were breathing the dust, the risk of significantly serious lung diseases like asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma were increased later in life. Many navies, including the Navy, prohibited asbestos for constructing ships. Not only sailors were potentially exposed. Many other categories of workers such as aviation Machinist’s Mate, Molders, Steelworkers, StoreKeeper, Water tender, aircraft mechanic, and others were affected.



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