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Military and commercial ships used asbestos heavily in many of their building materials to prevent fires and excessive heat on board. The mineral could be found in almost any part of the ships and was actively used in ship construction until the 1970s. Though use of asbestos discontinued, past uses of the toxin may still linger on old ships today, whether used actively in the U.S. Navy or preserved for historical purposes.

Because asbestos was relied on so heavily in shipbuilding, veterans and shipyard workers are among the most at risk of developing mesothelioma and other asbestos diseases as a result of current and past exposure.


Asbestos Use in Ship Construction

Asbestos could be found almost anywhere on military ships and was used heavily for decades in the 1900s, making it likely for passengers and service members to be exposed while on board, as well as shipyard workers helping to maintain and repair the ships. Although ships and naval vessels had different functions in combat, the main goal in constructing them was ensuring that their materials could withstand fire and extreme heat. In doing so, shipbuilders used a variety of asbestos products, especially in the boiler and engine rooms and for insulation purposes.

Common Products Containing Asbestos in Ship Construction
  • Adhesives
  • Block insulation
  • Boilers
  • Brake linings
  • Cables
  • Flooring
  • Gaskets
  • Insulation
  • Paneling
  • Piping
  • Pumps
  • Roofing

Boilers, which were heat-emitting appliances in ships, required surrounding insulation to prevent fires and control the heat it created. Most boiler insulation on ships contained about 15% asbestos in its makeup, and was easily broken down when repairs needed to be made on the internal structure. Pipes and pumps throughout older ships were also commonly insulated with asbestos, as well as the adhesives and sealers used to make repairs.

Since asbestos was so widely used throughout the ships, exposure is a continued threat for veterans and shipyard workers. Though the mineral is technically safe when in good shape and undisturbed, asbestos materials were often easily damaged on ships during battle or even through repair work. With close quarters and poor air circulation on board, any airborne asbestos fibers could easily become more concentrated in the air and present a higher threat of exposure. Even small, one-off exposures to asbestos are considered dangerous and can lead to an asbestos-related illness.

Military Ships Built With Asbestos

Hundreds of ships were built with asbestos materials, leaving millions of veterans, shipyard workers and the general public at risk of exposure and later developing mesothelioma or a related illness.

Aircraft Carriers

Aircraft carriers are used to transport aircrafts during wartime, but the materials used to fireproof the structures now leave veterans and workers at risk of developing mesothelioma and other health conditions.

Amphibious Warships

Amphibious warships are designed to land ground force cargo and support U.S. Marines on land. They are instrumental in combat, but their asbestos building materials put many passengers in danger of serious health risks.

Battleships

Navy battleships were versatile during wartime and were constructed with asbestos-containing products to protect them from extreme heat and fire. Battleships could carry several thousand passengers at a time, putting tens of thousands of people at risk of asbestos exposure.

Cruisers

More than 140 Navy cruisers were constructed and repaired with asbestos-containing products. Navy veterans aboard cruisers were at great risk of being exposed to asbestos, especially those serving in the engine and boiler rooms.

Destroyers

Navy destroyers were built and repaired using asbestos in boilers, pumps and other equipment. With more than 300 active destroyers during World War II alone, thousands of veterans potentially faced exposure aboard these ships.

Destroyer Escorts

Destroyer escorts supported the Merchant Marines during World War II. With more than 450 ships built and maintained with asbestos products, thousands of people face exposure and the risk of developing mesothelioma.

Escort Carriers

Prior to the late 1970s, asbestos was commonly used as an insulation material for protection from extreme fire and heat aboard escort carrier ships. More than 120 escort carriers were built with asbestos products during World War II, and sailors who served on or maintained these ships may now be at risk of developing mesothelioma.

Frigates

Research estimates at least 114 frigates were built with asbestos materials, especially in their engine and boiler rooms. This put those serving on board, as well as the individuals responsible for the repair and maintenance of these vessels, at risk of exposure.

Merchant Marine Ships

At one point in time, there were over 1,000 Merchant Marine Ships in its fleet. Merchant Mariners serving on Merchant Marine ships may be at risk of developing asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma cancer due to asbestos exposure while serving onboard or while working to build or repair the ships.

Minesweepers

Minesweepers were responsible for clearing an open area of mines so that larger naval warships could pass through safely. Due to the large amount of asbestos products used aboard more than 300 of these vessels, veterans who served aboard minesweepers are at risk of developing mesothelioma.

Submarines

Those who worked or sailed on submarines spent much of their time in confined areas with poor ventilation. As a result, they were frequently exposed to high levels of harmful asbestos, leaving many at risk of developing mesothelioma.

Veteran Risk of Mesothelioma

Veterans who served aboard any of these vessels, as well as civilians who helped repair or maintain them, are at a higher risk of developing mesothelioma due to the excessively close quarters and poor air circulation. With some crew members confined to rooms with boilers and other asbestos-insulated equipment for long periods of time, their chances of being exposed to airborne asbestos were high. Mesothelioma affects veterans of all branches, and 30% of all mesothelioma patients are veterans.

Since military ships used asbestos in their building materials until at least the 1970s, it’s likely that millions of veterans have been exposed to asbestos, though conditions like mesothelioma can take 10 – 50 years to develop after initial exposure. Members of the Navy, Coast Guard, Merchant Marines and U.S. Army Transport Service spent numerous hours aboard ships where they may have been exposed.

Written By

Tara Strand Senior Content Writer

Tara Strand specializes in researching and writing about asbestos, raising awareness and advocating for a ban.


Full Bio Editorial Guidelines
Reviewed By

Jennifer Lucarelli Legal Advisor and Contributor

Jennifer Lucarelli is a partner at the law firm of Early, Lucarelli, Sweeney & Meisenkothen, specializing in asbestos litigation.


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