The United States Merchant Marines are a supplemental arm of the U.S. Navy and, like all branches of the military, face a high risk of occupational asbestos exposure. Merchant Mariners serve aboard merchant ships and vessels providing transportation domestically and internationally for commercial and military purposes. Asbestos-containing materials were used widely on ships constructed prior to 1980, and Merchant Marines are still at risk of exposure today.
How Are Merchant Marines at Risk of Asbestos Exposure
Merchant Mariners are exposed to high stress and hazardous work environments anytime they’re aboard a ship. They often suffer psychological effects from the long spans of time separated from family, and physical impairments from chemical exposures, like gases and microscopic asbestos fibers. There is a long history of seamen and asbestos-related disease, with the first incidence reported in 1918.
Prior to the 1980s, asbestos fibers were frequently used in the construction of ships to inhibit fire and chemical hazards while at sea, but this seemingly preventive measure is directly associated with the high incidence of asbestos-related disease among seamen. Because of the heavy use of asbestos aboard ships, various departments and roles within the Merchant Marines were at higher risk of exposure.
- Deck crew: management of the crew and operations, navigation and handling cargo
- Engine crew: maintenance to the engine and boiler room and managing the propulsion system
- Stewards: managing cleanliness and sanitation, food services and maintaining living quarters
In U.S. merchant ships, asbestos products can be found in living spaces and around machinery, as it was used in products like insulation, gaskets and boilers. When asbestos is in good shape and undisturbed, it’s considered relatively safe. But when asbestos materials are installed, repaired or removed, the fibers can become disturbed and airborne. Aboard ships, the risk of exposure can be even higher because of the constant vibration and movement, potentially further disturbing the asbestos and releasing more fibers into the air.
The volatile environment of shiplife, from weather and wartime conditions, can also result in Merchant Mariners being tasked with completing repairs prior to arriving at port. According to reports, such scenarios led to crew members experiencing similar exposures as those recorded in shipyard workers. Poor ventilation in both engine and boiler rooms, where many repairs of asbestos-containing products take place, lead to higher concentration exposures and an increased risk in later developing a disease like mesothelioma.
One study found that Merchant Mariners working in the engine room were among the most impacted by asbestos-related illness. After inspecting chest x-rays of over 3,000 Merchant Mariners, researchers found more than 40% of those working in the engine room had abnormalities of the lung, in either the pleura (lung linings) or parenchyma (functional part of the lung that allows for gas transfer).
Across all the Merchant Mariners in the study, about 34% had lung abnormalities. Such abnormalities may be indicative of pleural mesothelioma, the most common form of the cancer. Additionally, the study found that those with more time elapsed since exposure to asbestos had a greater chance of abnormalities, which is consistent with the long latency period of asbestos-related diseases.
The height of Merchant Mariners’ exposure to asbestos occurred during World War II. Veterans who served during the war are among the most at risk of developing mesothelioma. Merchant Marine ships in the fleet at the time of World War II include S.S. Del Mar, S.S. Empire, S.S. Mormacsea, S.S. Socony 10 and S.S. Cilco Logger, among others.
Preventing Asbestos Exposure
Because Merchant Mariners and other occupations face a high risk of asbestos exposure on the job, there are strict laws in place to help protect workers and the public from exposure. Some of these laws and safety precautions include:
- All older sea and naval vessels, particularly those built before 1980, should be inspected for asbestos. Any asbestos materials found should be removed or encapsulated.
- When working in areas suspected to contain asbestos, Merchant Mariners should use protective gear, like respirators.
- Clothing worn in and around potentially contaminated areas should be washed before leaving the site, to avoid bringing fibers home and exposing loved ones.
Merchant Marine and Navy veterans that believe they may have experienced occupational asbestos exposure while serving should seek medical advice. An early diagnosis of mesothelioma or other asbestos diseases gives patients more treatment options, which can improve life expectancy.
Author: Tara Strand
Senior Content WriterRead about Tara
Reviewer: Jennifer R. Lucarelli
Lawyer for Mesothelioma Victims and Their FamiliesRead about Jennifer
Andruskiene, J, Barseviciene, et al. Poor sleep, anxiety, depression and other occupational health risks in seafaring population. The International Journal on Marine Navigation and Safety of Sea Transportation. March 2016; 10(1): 19-26. doi: 10.12716/1001.10.01.01
Selikoff IJ, Lilis R, et al. Asbestotic radiological abnormalities among United States merchant marine seamen. British Journal of Industrial Medicine. May 1990; 47(5): 292–297.
United States Merchant Marine Academy. About the United States Merchant Marine Academy. Updated May 2018.