The Bethlehem Steel Corporation was one of the largest and most well-known American producers of steel during the twentieth century, even providing the steel for the Golden Gate Bridge. A direct descendant of a smaller 19th-century steel company in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Bethlehem Steel expanded rapidly until it included other plants, several mines, railroads and even shipyards. Bethlehem Steel’s revenue peaked during World War II and the decades following. It began to decline during the last decades of the 20th century and eventually declared bankruptcy in 2001.
In 1938, Bethlehem Steel purchased the United Shipyards that were located on Staten Island at the mouth of Newark Bay, changing the name to the Bethlehem Steel Shipyard Staten Island. The outbreak of World War II greatly increased the production and the number of employees at the shipyard. By the war’s end in 1945, the Bethlehem Steel Shipyard had completed nearly 50 destroyers and 75 landing crafts while maintaining and repairing countless other ships and employing tens of thousands of men and women.
Production and the number of employees were cut back after 1945, though picking up slightly during the Korean War. At the end of 1953, with the war in Korea over, production again slowed considerably. The shipyard continued repair work but never again had the output that it did during those two wars. Bethlehem Steel closed the Staten Island Shipyard in 1960.
Shipyard Workers at Risk for Asbestos Exposure
Asbestos products were commonly used in high-heat areas in ships as insulation and in order to “fire-proof” a room. While the largest concentration was in the engine and boiler rooms, no part of a ship was completely safe. Insulated pipes snaked their way throughout almost every room, providing heat and hot water. This pipe insulation was generally an asbestos product. Some of these insulated pipes even ran directly above sailors bunks, inches away from their faces.
The men who were most commonly exposed were: boilermen, enginemen, firemen, shipfitters, pipefitters, electricians, machinists, seabees (military construction), and civilian shipyard workers. However, exposure was not limited to only these workers, and anyone who constructed or served on a ship could have been exposed as workers never wore protective gear. Anyone in the shipyard could have inhaled the asbestos dust.
Types of Asbestos Products Used
The asbestos products that were used at the Bethlehem Steel Shipyard on Staten Island were used as insulation and to create “fire-proof” rooms. The insulation was used on the many piping systems throughout the ships as well as on boilers and in engine rooms. The floors, walls, and ceilings in the boiler-rooms and engine-rooms were often covered with tile made with asbestos to create an area safe from fire. Some safety products, such as “fire blankets” (used to extinguish sparks on clothing), were made with asbestos.
The following are examples of asbestos insulation:
- Aircell – corrugated asbestos paper, looks comparably like gray cardboard (Trade names: Asbestocel and Carcycel, among others).
- Block Insulation – a combination of asbestos with other binders that was then hardened to create blocks for insulation. The outside surface was commonly covered with cloth made from canvas or tar paper, but it was occasionally used without any covering at all. Examples of block insulation: Amosite Sheeting, Carbonate of Magnesia, Hydrous Calcium Silicate, Laminated Asbestos Felt.
The shipyard workers were exposed as they worked with asbestos, installing insulation and making repairs. Blocks of asbestos insulation, asbestos paper, and asbestos tile would have to be shaped according to what was needed. It would be cut, broken, and sanded, thus putting large amounts of asbestos dust into the air. Gaskets made of, or with asbestos would be ground down using electric wire brushes, again creating dust. The dust was subsequently breathed in, leading to the health problems listed below.
At Risk for Mesothelioma and Other Asbestos Diseases
By the mid-1970s, strong evidence was uncovered regarding the health dangers associated with prolonged exposure to asbestos. Many who had worked with asbestos for extended periods of time were coming down with pulmonary diseases (such as mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis) from breathing asbestos dust.
The asbestos-related diseases include:
- Mesothelioma: a type of cancer only caused by asbestos exposure that attacks the lining around the lungs and/or heart and/or abdomen. This cancer is not in the organs themselves, though untreated it will spread. The most common form is pleural mesothelioma (lung lining), then peritoneal mesothelioma (stomach lining), and then pericardial mesothelioma (heart lining).
- Asbestos-Related Lung Cancer: while lung cancer can come from numerous sources, asbestos exposure can lead to the formation of a malignant tumor that blocks the air passages (common for smokers who were exposed to asbestos).
- Asbestosis: a pulmonary condition, only caused by exposure to asbestos, where scar tissue builds up in the lungs causing breathing problems and low blood flow.
The diseases associated with asbestos are similar in that their symptoms often do not appear for many years after exposure. It is not uncommon for someone to develop lung cancer after a 10 year lag between onset and initial exposure. Mesothelioma cancer and asbestosis often do not become apparent for 30 to 40 years after the initial exposure to asbestos. Common symptoms include difficulty breathing, chest pains, a dry hacking cough that sometimes contains blood.
The health problems associated with asbestos were not just isolated to people who worked directly with the product. The asbestos dust would spread easily through the air putting workers who never used it at risk. Family members were also at risk because workers would return home with the dust on their clothes, shoes and even hair.