Asbestos had a very wide array of uses in the US Navy shipbuilding because it was affordable and had many properties that fitted their needs: it resists corrosion, chemical damage, and high temperatures.
These properties made asbestos a good insulating, fireproofing, and building material. The Navy used it in nearly every part of each of its ships.
For example, it was used in the engine and boiler rooms, in the sailors sleeping quarters, mess halls, navigation rooms, and other common areas. More than 300 asbestos-containing materials were 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 exposure 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 determined in terms of the number of fibers (such as fibers per milliliter, f/ml). Asbestos fibers are distinguished from other particles present in the 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 of that class had asbestos all over! There was asbestos on the pipe lagging for sound purposes and everything and had asbestos in it. We did various projects in the engine room. All of us were exposed to asbestos! We were never warned about how dangerous asbestos can be. Nobody talked about protective gear or how to protect ourselves from inhaling asbestos fibers. I served on the ship from 1971 to 1976, and during that period, it was no PPE of any kind."
Most of the time, the sailors didn't realize that they inhaled or swallowed the tiny microscopic fibers. Asbestos fibers can sit in the lungs or intestines for decades before they start to cause inflammation, difficulty breathing, or even pain. Our bodies cannot break down asbestos fibers.
These tiny little culprits can travel all over the body and incubate anywhere, causing serious health problems decades later. It is like a progressive disease. Once it starts, it just gets worse. It is important to get diagnosed properly. For physicians is very hard to pinpoint asbestos-related diseases, as they 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 scarring or lung nodules, it is the first indication that you have asbestos fibers in there.
What Kind of PPE Must Be Worn When Asbestos Is or May Be Present?
When working with asbestos, it 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), a 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 that 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. Respirators need 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 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 intend 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 Are at High Risk for Asbestos-Related Lung Diseases Caused by a 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. When experiencing any of the following symptoms, please seek professional help:
- pain in the chest or abdomen
- dry cough
- shortness of breath
- respiratory system complications
- night sweats
- pleural effusion (fluid around the lungs)
- general weakness
Upon an asbestos-related cancer diagnosis, 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. We can help by connecting you with experienced attorneys ready to assist with your case.