Resources for Patients and their Families

Merchant Marines and Mesothelioma

Merchant Marines

The Merchant Marine trade plays an adjunct role to the Navy and is the primary provider of supplies and support during wartime. Merchant mariners are considered civilians during peacetime but are otherwise active military personnel. In 2006, the merchant marine fleet consisted of 465 ships and almost 50,000 people. The Military Sealift Command (MSC) assists the Department of Defense (DOD) during both war and peacetime. Fuel, equipment, ammunition and other crucial cargo are transported around the world to our armed forces by the Merchant Marines.

In World War II, two hundred billion pounds of merchant ships, material and cargo were lost, and the mortality rate was extremely high - one death for every twenty-four merchant mariners serving our country. Merchant mariners also provided active support in the Korean and Vietnam wars as well as for the more recent Gulf Wars.

There are a vast number of different roles and responsibilities aboard each merchant marine ship, including (but not limited to) captains, masters and department heads, mates and pilots, engineers and deck officers, cooks and food handlers, oilers, wipers, firemen and QMED (Qualified Members of the Engine Department). The engineers and officers usually receive extensive training at military academies where they must undergo rigorous testing and accumulate "sea time" in order to achieve a qualified rating.

Merchant Marines Are Frequently Exposed to Asbestos on the Job

As if wartime dangers aren't perilous enough in and of themselves, most merchant mariners are also at great risk for contracting mesothelioma and other diseases, primarily because material used to insulate military ship boilers and piping contained (and sometimes still contains) asbestos. Therefore, those who interact directly with the vessels' onboard machinery, piping, engines, boilers and furnaces are especially susceptible to developing a deadly asbestos cancer disease such as mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis. More specifically, the engineers who install, repair and run the engines, generators, boilers, pipes and pumps, and the oilers and QMED's who lubricate the machinery are at greater risk than the pilots, sailors and officers and mates who generally have more of a navigational role about the ship.

However, due to the fact that much of the below decks operational maintenance occurs in such cramped and unventilated quarters, every crew member runs the risk of exposure to dangerous asbestos fibers, even if such exposure is secondhand meaning that it comes from breathing asbestos fibers off the clothes or hair of those workers who have more close contact with the potentially hazardous machinery. In addition, workers who assisted with the initial building and retrofitting of the merchant fleet were in jeopardy of toxic and lethal asbestos inhalation, since fitting out a ship required installing and cutting asbestos in tight, insufficiently-ventilated areas. A National Health Institute study conducted in 2003 concluded that mesothelioma cancer should be considered an occupational disease for merchant mariners and that occupational asbestos exposure contributes to their excess cancer mortality.

A special note concerning boilers: because asbestos was a major component in boilers manufactured until the 1970's, and because most boilers have a long lifespan (usually lasting thirty-five years or more), even present day merchant marines are at risk of working with asbestos-containing materials (ACM) when repairing and maintaining boilers.

Merchant Mariners Use a Variety of Asbestos Products

In caring for the boilers aboard most merchant fleet ships, mariners often worked with asbestos-containing materials (ACM) such as fire bricks, gaskets, values, pipe-covering, blocks and insulation. Some companies who produced asbestos-containing boilers between 1920 and 1970 include Babcock & Wilcox, Cleaver-Brooks, Combustion Engineering, Erie City, Foster Wheeler, Hercules Chemical, and Kewanee. Most of these companies also produced gaskets and lining materials laden with asbestos and asbestos containing materials.

Some of the manufacturers and brand names of the above-listed materials are:

Fire Bricks

A.P. Green MIZZOU Firebrick, Harbison-Walker Nucon 60, Harbison-Walker Magnex, Harbison-Walker Nucon


Armstrong Sheet Gasketing, Armstrong Accobest AS-474, Armstrong Accobest AS-8073, Raymark Valve Rings, GAF Connectite, Flexitallic Spiral Wound Gasket, and Manville Gaskets

Pipe Covering and Block

Armstrong World Industries Nonpareil High Pressure Covering Block, Atlas Turner Aircell, Atlas Turner Finecell, Atlas Turner Pipe, Atlas Turner Simplex, Atlas Turner Newtherm, Carey Pipe Insulation, Carey Lennolite, Carey Super-Light 85% Magnesia, Celotex Defendex Pipe Covering, Celotex Excel PB (Piping and Block), Celotex Fyrex P, Celotex Glosscell PB, Eagle Picher 85% Magnesia Pipe Cover, Fibreboard Pabco 85% Magnesia, Keasbey & Mattison K&M Pipe Insulation, K&M Hy-Temp Blocks, Keene Ehret Pipe Covering, Durant Insulated Pipe Covering, Keene Corporation Endure Pipe Covering Block & Cement, Keene (Ehret) 85% Magnesia, Keene Mono-Block, Keene Corporation Thermalite, Keene Corporation Thermasil, Keene Corporation Mundet

Boiler Coatings

Keasbey & Mattison K&M Range Boiler Jacket, United States Gypsum Company Range Boiler Jackets Pipe Covering, GAF Range Boiler Jacket

Merchant Mariners Exposed to Asbestos Can Develop Mesothelioma and Asbestos-Related Lung Cancer

Quite often, a great deal of time passes from the end of asbestos exposure to when symptoms of an asbestos-related disease appear. Lung cancer sometimes does not occur until ten years after a person was exposed to asbestos, and it can take up to fifty years for asbestosis and mesothelioma to present. Another complicating factor is that initial symptoms are sometimes misdiagnosed as everyday ailments.

A more widely known and accepted connection between asbestos exposure and pulmonary diseases such as mesothelioma, asbestosis and lung cancer became apparent in the 1970's. This was particularly applicable to workers who had extensive exposure to asbestos dust and fibers in an occupational setting. Even so, many manufacturers and employers covered up or otherwise downplayed the connection, and thus merchant mariners frequently continued working without adequate knowledge or precaution in a dangerous and possibly deadly environment.

Here follows a more-detailed examination of asbestos-related illnesses:

Pleural Mesothelioma and Peritnoeal Mesothelioma

As it often takes thirty to fifty years or more for asbestos inhalation to result in disease, this seldom-seen and very severe form of cancer is unfortunately becoming a more familiar diagnosis for merchant marines and other seafaring tradespeople. Since the only known cause of mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos-containing materials (ACM), mariners who were on ships in the 50's, 60's and 70's are just beginning to struggle with the breathing problems, chest pains, and (sometimes blood-producing) coughs which are often symptoms of occupational lung disease. Mesothelioma mainly occurs in the lining of the lungs (also known as the pleural mesothelioma), but can also be found in the linings of the abdomen (peritoneal mesothelioma) or heart (pericardial mesothelioma). Loss of appetite, unplanned weight loss, weakness and fatigue are other common symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma. This disease has been known to metastasize and spread to other areas in the body. The life expectancy of a mesothelioma patient is often less than 18 months.

Asbestos-Related Lung Cancer

As opposed to mesothelioma, lung cancer can develop from exposure to substances other than asbestos. However, a smoker who has been exposed to asbestos has up to a 90 percent greater chance of developing lung cancer over non-smokers who have been exposed to asbestos. It should also be noted that Kent cigarettes used asbestos in its filters from 1952 to 1956. Lung cancer is deemed asbestos-related lung cancer when underlying asbestosis (lung tissue scarring) or pleural plaques are present.

Author: Linda Molinari

Editor in Chief, Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance

Linda Molinari
Mesothelioma Resource Guide

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