The Penn Shipbuilding facility was located about 15 miles south of Philadelphia on the shores of the Delaware River, in the city of Chester. Founded in 1917, the shipyard began as the site of the mighty Sun Shipbuilding and Drydock Company, and served the oil industry for most of its long existence.
As Sun, the facility was ranked as the largest shipyard in the United States during World War II, when it produced about 40% of the tanker vessels used by the United States during the war effort.
Penn focused primarily on the construction and maintenance of small to medium ships and vessels, purchasing the Sun facility in 1982 and finally closing its doors in 1989 amid a series of serious cost overruns. Prior to its closure, Penn workers completed the modern conversion of two container ships to a special type of vehicle cargo ships, called Fast Sealift Ships.
Like so many men and women employed by shipbuilding and repair facilities prior to the mid 1970s, the workers at the Penn Shipbuilding facility worked with a number of marine products which relied on asbestos for its resistance to heat and corrosion, as well as its flexibility and strength, which lent the silica-based material to a wide range of construction and repair purposes. From gaskets, levers, and valves, to spray-on insulation and protective coatings, asbestos products were readily used in every area of shipbuilding and repair.
Although they appeared to work beautifully in the constantly damp marine atmosphere, asbestos based products also posed a serious and often terminal health risk to the men and women who worked with or even near these products. Those risks did not become apparent until the mid 1970s, when federal legislation made the use of asbestos in manufacturing illegal.
But by then, thousands upon thousands of shipyard workers had been exposed to the fine dust-like particles of the silica-based mineral, which can be easily inhaled and ingested, lodging in the tissue of the lungs, stomach, and other organs. Once in the body, the effects of these fibers cannot be halted or reversed. Although symptoms may take decades to appear, eventually most men and women exposed to the fibers regularly develop serious and potentially deadly health complications, including mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer, among others.
Early symptoms of malignant mesothelioma may appear to mimic those of a common cold, but unlike a cold, the effects of asbestos exposure cannot be eradicated once the fibers are inhaled or ingested. As a dust-like fiber, asbestos particles can remain in an area long after the materials have ceased to be used. If you worked for the Penn Shipbuilding facility, you should discuss the health risks associated with your own exposure to asbestos as mesothelioma navy cases are most common.