The vast majority of US Navy vessels built prior to 1980 were heavily loaded with asbestos, a toxic mineral responsible for affecting thousands of shipyard workers and sailors. Those who were deployed on these ships are at risk of developing asbestosis, mesothelioma, or other serious asbestos-related conditions. Until the mid-1970s when the health risks associated with asbestos became more widely known, more than 300 asbestos-containing materials were used regularly in building various ships for the Navy. This known carcinogen was found in engine and boiler rooms, navigation rooms, mess halls, sleeping quarters, and other areas of the vessel.
But why was asbestos so widely used by the Navy? Unlike other materials at that time, asbestos brought a number of functional properties that no other material could match. This substance's affordability, tensile strength, heat resistance, and chemical damage resistance contributed to its extensive use as an insulator, a fireproofing, and a building material.
Naval records from ship databases, repair logs, war diaries, letters, memos, and historical documents have confirmed that Navy vessels' equipment often contained asbestos. Today, even though there are fewer asbestos-containing products on board Navy ships and in shipyards, this toxic material may still be used if no other alternative is available.
Unfortunately, the material becomes more brittle with age, and its removal becomes tedious and could pose a bigger threat to workers' health if the safety guidelines aren't properly followed. The Navy has taken steps in order to remove existing asbestos from its vessels, but much of the toxic mineral is still present aboard these ships today.
Where Was Asbestos Used in a Ship?
Unfortunately, for many Navy workers, asbestos contamination was not limited to a specific class of vessel. The material was used starting from the smallest patrol boats, to the largest submarines, battleships, and aircraft carriers. Asbestos was used in boilers, pipe insulation, pumps, and valves:
Boilers generate high-temperature and high-pressure steam on ships, powering the ship to move across the water and running other important equipment on board. Prior to 1973, the Navy was instructed to coat boilers with external insulation containing about 15% asbestos and use loose asbestos packing and asbestos gaskets to manage heat.
Installation and regular maintenance on boilers took place in closed quarters with poor ventilation, where clouds of asbestos dust were released. Exposure occurred among boilermakers and service members who handled the boilers.
Navy vessels used an extensive network of pipes that carried steam and cold water throughout the entire ship. In order to protect them and keep the steam system perfectly running, the pipes were coated with insulation wraps that contained asbestos.
The insulation contained felt wrapping covered by an outer wrapping of tar. The felt layer typically contained 5%-50% asbestos. Because the pipes passed through sleeping quarters and mess halls, asbestos was often released into the air. Repair works, such as removing old insulation and replacing it with new wrappings, exposed people in the area to the toxic asbestos dust. New insulation coating was typically made by mixing dry asbestos with water, another activity that released asbestos dust.
Asbestos was also commonly found in mechanical pumps, as well as in the cooling, heating, or bilge systems it could power. Those who maintained the pumps were frequently exposed to asbestos during the repair work. The asbestos found on the pumps' surface and within the pumps was released during these operations, this is how the exposure occurred.
Unfortunately, most people who performed these works did not wear proper protective equipment, such as air masks, and they did not wet the insulation before starting to remove it. This would have prevented fibers from being released into the air. Replacing the pumps' worn asbestos gaskets was also problematic. This led to the release of asbestos fibers when workers used wire brushes, scrapers, and other tools to remove the gaskets.
Many types of valves used on Navy ships contained asbestos. The valves were filled with asbestos packing and gaskets which contained this toxic mineral. The outside surface of the valves was also covered with asbestos insulation. Whenever maintenance work was performed on valves, pipefitters, boiler operators, and other equipment, service members were exposed to asbestos. The valves needed regular disassembly for the replacement of the packing and gaskets that were no longer functional. Other vessel items that contained asbestos included:
- aggregate mixtures
- bedding compounds
- block insulation
- deck covering materials
- hydraulic assemblies
- insulating materials
- packing materials
- thermal materials
Have You Been Exposed to Asbestos in a Shipyard?
If you are a veteran and you have worked in the US Navy, you might have been exposed to dangerous levels of asbestos. Our website is designed to help veterans and all individuals see if their ship or shipyard posed a threat to them. Call us at 760-621-6147 for assistance!