The S.S. E.J. Block was built sometime during the 1930s by the American Shipbuilding Company at either its Wynadotte (Detroit) or West Bay City Michigan yard. Available images of the vessel show an unusual configuration with the main bridge located near the bow. Although little information is available about this vessel, it appears to have been used primarily to move cargo between U.S. and Canadian ports along the shores of the Great Lakes.
An advertisement in a 1946 issue of Metal Progress displays a photograph of the Block with the caption: “INLAND Ore Freighter First With Diesel-Electric Power.” The accompanying text states that the vessel was “reconverted and streamlined, with new power,” suggesting that the vessel had been converted from steam power by the company running the ad. The company was the Inland Steel Company of Chicago.
Few details are available about the E.J. Block's history over the next four decades. Eventually however, she wound up docked at Humberstone, Ontario in April 1988, where she was dismantled over the next few years.
Before 1980, virtually every seagoing vessel made extensive use of asbestos insulation, particularly in the engine room and around the boilers. This was in part due to federal legislation following a cruise ship disaster in September 1934. Nearly a quarter of the passengers and crew aboard the S.S. Morro Castle died when the vessel caught fire off the coast of New Jersey.
What asbestos industry lobbyists failed to tell the Congressmen they lobbied was that asbestos was a deadly toxin. Medical researchers had suspected the dangers of asbestos as early as 1899; British doctors had largely conformed the cause and effect by the mid-1920s. Medical researchers hired by the asbestos industry in the U.S. had firmly established the connection by around 1936, but industry players chose to suppress this information resulting in mesothelioma navy cases.
By 1940 however, this information had reached the ears of the Roosevelt Administration. The President was initially hesitant to disseminate this information for fear of “creating disturbances in the labor force.” By 1943 however, “advisories” were issued to shipyard workers and management, recommending the use of ventilators and respirators when working with asbestos-containing materials.
These advisories did not have the force of law and were usually not followed. Meanwhile, asbestos companies spread propaganda, promoting the “safety” of asbestos products and downplaying the hazards and risk for mesothelioma.
By the 1960s, information about asbestos and respiratory disease could no longer be totally hidden, as medical research was starting to be made public. The first asbestos lawsuit was filed in 1966; at this time, corporate lawyers defended their clients by claiming ignorance. Health hazards of asbestos they claimed were unknown prior to 1960, therefore the companies could not be held liable.
In 1977 however, discovery of the “Sumner Simpson Papers” exposed the four-decade conspiracy, opening the door to the billions of dollars in litigation that has taken place since.
Asbestos disease symptoms usually do not appear until many years or even decades after a worker is exposed to the substance. Anyone who sailed or worked aboard the S.S. E.J. Block State should be monitored by a health care professional, even if they are not showing symptoms of malignant mesothelioma at the present. Not everyone who is exposed to asbestos contracts a disease, but if you were exposed, it is important to discuss it with your primary care physician.Sources
Bowker, Michael. Fatal Deception: The Terrifying True Story of How Asbestos is Killing America. New York: Touchstone, 2003.
Inland Steel Company Advertisement. Metal Progress, 1946 (issue volume and number unknown).
Welland Canal Website. “E.J. Block.”