Long before the hazards of asbestos became widely publicized and known, asbestos was extensively used in the shipbuilding industry in the United States. Several factors such as easy access, low cost and the fire/heat/corrosion-resistant properties of asbestos made it a popular shipbuilding material during the mid-20th century, especially during World War II. It came across as the ideal material for combating several dangers experienced by war shipboards. More than 300 asbestos based materials were widely utilized on naval ships until the 1970s. The Navy eventually instated a ban of the usage of asbestos after its dangers came to the forefront. However, this ban was effective only on new ships, and the deadly mineral stayed put in existing ships. Even today, certain asbestos-based materials are still permitted for ship construction activities if other alternatives are not available.
A Europe-based asbestos abatement firm, Technopure, estimates that an average ship of standard size (made before the reforms put a leash on the use of asbestos in the shipbuilding industry) easily contains 500 to 1,000 tons of the deadly element. Almost 30 percent of all mesothelioma cases diagnosed every year involve Navy veterans, who were exposed to the deadly mineral during the course of their military tenure. Serving in an American shipyard during the World War turned out to be as dangerous as fighting the actual war. The mesothelioma death rate turned out to be 14 per 1,000 personnel, while the combat zone death rate was 18 per 1,000 personnel. In addition to mesothelioma, an unknown number of naval personnel also suffered from asbestosis health complications.
Asbestos-containing products are most commonly used for insulation due to its heat absorption and fire fighting properties. Asbestos can be found in pipe coverings that are used for hot steam pipes and fuel lines. Preformed insulation was a little less hazardous form of insulation, yet contained some asbestos that could cause danger in extreme conditions. Pipe insulation was regularly cut off and restored, thus exposing unsuspecting workers to dangerous asbestos particles.
Other common uses of asbestos in Navy ships were centered on pumps, turbines and condensers (generally equipment that generated intense heat). It was the preferred material for exhaust systems such as connectors. Asbestos was also utilized for building meters, rods, paneling, valves and felts.
The high risk occupations that were most affected by the asbestos exposure on navy ships included pipe fitters, shipbuilders, machine operators, boiler creators, electricians, plumbers, riggers, engineers and welders. Apart from these unfortunate personnel, everyone onboard was prone to develop asbestos exposure-related diseases on account of poor ventilation and close proximity to the material. Even family members of these personnel were at a risk of developing asbestos-related cancers such as mesothelioma through indirect exposure (via the worker's clothes and other belongings).
When the Environment Protection Agency in the United States began to act tough on the asbestos-containing ships by way of reform campaigns, the Navy had large investments to safeguard. There were a minimum of 298 asbestos-based materials that were being utilized on ships and replacing the current insulation systems would require millions of dollars. The Navy banned usage of ACMs on newly build ships in 1973, only to violate the ban for five years. Certain shipyards went ahead with the training of asbestos insulation workers in 1975. The Navy later went on to disclose that almost 41 ships with asbestos-based insulation materials were built post the 1973 ban.
The most serious illness related to increased asbestos exposure is pleural mesothelioma, an uncommon and complicated cancer type. When shipyard workers inhaled/ingested the asbestos fibers, these particles entered the pathway between the thin membranes surrounding the lungs and got dangerously embedded into the mesothelium wall. Over a period of several decades, the fibers manipulate healthy pleural mesothelium cells and convert them into malignant tumors. Due to the long-latency period spanning several decades, the disease often goes undetected until it reaches its advanced stages. A majority of mesothelioma-diagnosed patients are also above the age of 65 and therefore less likely to respond favorably to aggressive treatment methods. The average survival rate for the cancer is therefore less than a year. However, with advancements in medical research and technology, newer drugs/treatment methods are being discovered to treat the cancer more effectively.
Several shipyard workers and other Navy personnel who are affected by mesothelioma have sought expert legal counsel from specialized mesothelioma lawyers to receive compensation and/or settlements from their employers or the asbestos goods manufacturing firms.