Asbestos had a very wide array of uses in the US Navy shipbuilding because it was affordable and had any properties that fitted their needs: it resists corrosion, chemical damage, and high temperatures.
These properties made asbestos a good insulator, fireproofing, and building material. The Navy used it in nearly every part of each of their ships.
For example, it was used in engine and boiler rooms, in the sailors sleeping quarters, mess halls, navigation rooms, and other common areas. More than 300 asbestos-containing materials are known to be used in naval ships until the mid-1970s. It was used to insulate:
- hot water pipes
- steam pipes
Machinist's mates risked harmful exposures when replacing worn asbestos gaskets inside mechanical pumps. They released toxic fibers when using scrapers, wire brushes, and other tools to remove stubborn gaskets. The valves used in the piping and machinery systems of the ships were filled with asbestos packing and asbestos-containing gaskets. Asbestos dust tended to build up in all these locations, especially in inadequately ventilated areas, which increased human exposure aboard vessels.
Navy Personnel Did Not Wear Proper Protective Clothing and Face Masks Placing Them in Direct Contact With Friable Asbestos
In 1972, in its published "Criteria for a Recommended Standard Occupational Exposure to Asbestos", the NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) says: "insulation workers engaged in shipbuilding and repair, in which mean exposures may have been as high as 30 f/ml, are of particular concern". The airborne fibers are collected on membrane filters, and concentration is being determined in the terms of the number of fibers (such as fibers per milliliter, f/ml). Asbestos fibers are distinguished from other particles present in air by having a substantially greater length than their width.
Bill Z. who served as a crew member/quartermaster on the USS Lawrence (DDG-4) between 1971 and 1976 said: "The ship had asbestos all over the place! There was asbestos on pipe lagging for sound purposes and everything. All of us, me and all my shipmates, have been exposed to asbestos! We were never warned about how dangerous asbestos can be. Nobody talked about no protective gear or how to protect ourselves from inhaling the asbestos fibers."
Most of the time we don't even realize that we did inhale or even swallow the tiny microscopic fibers. Asbestos fibers can sit in our lungs or intestines for decades before they start to cause inflammation, difficulty breathing, or even pain. Our bodies cannot break down the asbestos fibers.
These tiny little culprits can travel all over our body and incubate anywhere they feel like and cause serious health problems decades later. It is like a progressive disease. Once it starts it just gets worst. It is important to get diagnosed properly. For physicians is very hard to pinpoint asbestos-related diseases, it can be very easily misdiagnosed. You need someone more specialized in that regard and you need to ask questions. Many times when they tell you that they see scaring or lung nodules, is the first indication that you have the asbestos fibers in there.
What Kind of PPE Must Be Worn When Asbestos Is or May Be Present?
When working with asbestos, is essential to wear the right personal protective equipment. Personal protective equipment is an essential line of defense for minimizing any asbestos contamination. Depending on the nature of the work you are doing, other PPE may also be required. This may include eye protection (safety goggles), hard hat, etc.
First and foremost you need a protective mask. Paper masks are not efficient in filtering out asbestos fibers and should not be used. Half face respirators are perfect for this purpose because they cover the nose and mouth and have a silicone or rubber piece and can stick to your face.
Respirators are used to purify the air you are breathing. The most popular and most efficient half-face respirator is a dual cartridge respirator equipped with HEPA filtered cartridges (color-coded purple) which have an N-100, P-100, or R-100 NIOSH rating. These cartridges are made for filtering out asbestos fibers.
It is very important for respirators to fit properly. Facial hair like beards and goatees, will not allow the respirator to fit properly. Make sure you do a fit check before starting to work with asbestos.
WARNING: Respirators cause the lungs to work harder in order to breathe air. Check with your doctor before buying a respirator to see if you are physically able to wear one.
Disposable coveralls and gloves should be used to prevent the contamination of clothing. The coveralls need to have a hood. The disposable gloves need to be suitable for the work you are intending to do. Smooth, nonslip footwear covers are recommended also.
You need to leave the respirator on until the contaminated clothing is removed, bagged and sealed, then dispose of the respirator by double bagging it.
If You're a Navy Veteran You at High Risk for Asbestos-Related Lung Diseases Caused by Lack of Appropriate Personal Protective Equipment
If you are a Navy veteran, please talk to your doctor and tell them about your history of asbestos exposure. If you are experiencing any of the following symptoms:
- pain in the chest or abdomen
- dry cough
- shortness of breath
- respiratory system complications
- night sweats
- pleural effusion (fluid around the lungs)
- general weakness
please seek professional help. Also, you may be entitled to VA claims and compensation from the several trust funds created for victims of asbestos exposure. There are also survivor benefits for spouses of veterans.