The SS Alcoa Cavalier was built for the Alcoa Steamship Company by the Oregon Shipbuilding Company of Portland, Oregon. Launched in March of 1947, she was originally intended to be a “Victory Ship” for the transport of war material. Instead, the vessel wound up serving as a cruise liner, making runs out of New Orleans to various Caribbean ports. The Cavalier was in service until 1963; she was ultimately scrapped in New Orleans five years later.
Asbestos insulation was used extensively throughout the construction of seagoing vessels prior to 1980. The reason was because of fire danger, which is perhaps the most catastrophic event that can occur at sea. This was driven home in a most graphic way in September 1934, when the cruise liner S.S. Morro Castle caught fire at sea off the coast of New Jersey, killing nearly 140 passengers and crewmen.
Of course, seeing an opportunity for extravagant profits, asbestos industry lobbyists went to work on their members of Congress, which passed regulations requiring the use of asbestos insulation aboard seagoing vessels, particularly in the fire room, around boilers and in the engine room. Although the legislature's intentions were good, the fact is that asbestos product manufacturers were well aware of the health hazards of their wares. Medical researchers had long suspected the toxicity of asbestos; their suspicions were confirmed by the mid-1930s.
Asbestos manufacturers then began a forty-year conspiracy, which included suppression of information; where the information could not be totally suppressed, a campaign of disinformation and lies was carried out. Warnings about the health hazards of asbestos, like mesothelioma, came to the attention of the Roosevelt Administration in March of 1941; however, the President was reluctant to disseminate this information for fear that it might “create disturbances among the labor force” at a time when workers were desperately needed for war production.
Eventually, the government did issue “advisories” to shipyard workers in 1943, recommending that respirators and ventilation be used at job sites. By then however, the asbestos producers had done their jobs well; such warnings were not taken seriously, which is why mesothelioma navy cases are most common.
By the 1960s, the connection between asbestos and respiratory disease was well-documented. However, asbestos disease has a long latency period; symptoms do not often show up until twenty to fifty years after initial exposure. When asbestos victims attempted to sue, lawyers for the corporations claimed that their clients had no knowledge of asbestos toxicity at the time of exposure.
This lie was exposed in 1977 with the discovery of the “Sumner Simpson Papers.” These consisted of correspondence between the CEOs of Raysbestos, Inc. and Johns-Manville in which it was agreed to suppress information regarding asbestos toxicity as long as possible. This discovery threw the door wide open to a flood of asbestos litigation that continues to the present day.
Anyone who sailed aboard the S.S. Alcoa Cavalier and has not yet developed symptoms of malignant mesothelioma should consult with a physician and have a thorough examination.Sources
Bowker, Michael. Fatal Deception: The Terrifying True Story of How Asbestos is Killing America. New York: Touchstone, 2003.
Cruising The Past. “Passenger Ships.”
Mariners. “Victory Ships – A.”