Asbestos could be found in various locations in all branches of the military as a fireproof and heatproof mineral. It was often used as an insulation material, but there were many other instances where asbestos could be found, including throughout ships. Across all military sites, asbestos was most prevalent in the U.S. Navy and is still present on some Navy sites today.
Asbestos was often used in the construction of Navy ships and bases and could also be found at shipyard and aviation sites. Because of the wide use of asbestos in the Navy, veterans faced frequent exposure and continue to be at risk of developing asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma. Abundant asbestos use in the military has led to one out of three mesothelioma diagnoses being a veteran, with Navy veterans considered the most at risk of developing the cancer.
Asbestos Exposure in Navy Veterans
Up until the 1970s, asbestos was commonly utilized in thousands of products and numerous industries, as well as in the United States military. Because asbestos was accessible and inexpensive, it became a standard additive for fireproofing. When asbestos products break down, however, from wear and tear or damage, fibers can become airborne and cause dangerous exposure.
The biggest risk of asbestos exposure in the Navy was aboard ships and in shipyards. Asbestos was used throughout Navy ships’ construction, which could lead to airborne asbestos as the ships sustained damage in battle or during frequent repairs. Due to the restricted air flow through ships, it also was likely that airborne asbestos could become more concentrated in the air and could travel to other parts of the ships, exposing those on board.
Navy Ship and Shipyard Asbestos Exposure
Navy veterans employed in various areas of ships and in shipyards were often exposed to asbestos in their everyday line of work. Navy builders, submarine workers, electricians and technicians were among those who were frequently exposed to the mineral. Other sailors, Navy personnel, culinary workers and medical staff were also at risk of exposure while on board.
Asbestos was often used for fireproof and heatproof insulation, but it also does not deteriorate easily in water, making it desirable for abundant use on military ships. Ships were built with asbestos materials until the late 1970s, so ships that served in World War I, World War II and other major wars were likely to be constructed with asbestos in some capacity.
Individuals who were responsible for building and repairing ships constructed with asbestos products, as well as retiring them from combat, were likely exposed to the mineral due to wear and tear on various parts of ships. Research has shown shipyard workers were often exposed to the mineral when retiring or making repairs to asbestos-ridden ships.
Families of Navy veterans and civilians working in Navy shipyards may have also been exposed to asbestos, whether from secondary exposure or directly. If veterans who served on Navy ships or worked in shipyards returned home with contaminated clothing, family members could inhale the transferrable asbestos fibers, which could lead to serious health conditions. Some family members were even able to board the Navy ships to spend time with their loved one, in what is known as a Tiger Cruise. Although families didn’t spend an extended period of time aboard Navy ships, they may have been exposed to lingering asbestos dust during that time. Studies have shown even brief, one-time exposure to asbestos can lead to an asbestos-related disease.
Where Asbestos Can Be Found on Navy Ships
Asbestos was used almost everywhere in Navy ships, as the mineral was an inexpensive and durable additive to construction materials. Asbestos insulation and other materials were most heavily used below deck in storage rooms, boiler rooms and pump rooms, where high-heat machinery was used. Asbestos was also found in sleeping quarters, mess halls and common areas as an additive to insulation materials, as it could withstand heat, fire, water and other reactions. The tight quarters and poor ventilation on Navy ships meant that broken down asbestos fibers were easily transferred throughout, exposing almost anyone on board.
Asbestos could also be found throughout shipyards within the materials used to repair the ships, and also within any fragmented materials from damaged ships. When maintenance work needed to be done on board, usually in boiler and engine rooms, workers used asbestos adhesives and sealers to make repairs. Wear and tear to the structures typically led to asbestos dust, which can cause serious health problems for anyone on board and those working in shipyards.
Navy Veteran Mesothelioma Risk
Military veterans may develop the disease from the military’s extensive use of asbestos aboard Navy ships. General wearing and aging of ships, as well as repairs, can cause asbestos dust to be released into the air, which can be easily inhaled by anyone on board.
If microscopic asbestos fibers from ship construction materials are inhaled or ingested, they may become lodged in lung tissue, which can lead to malignant mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases like asbestosis and lung cancer. Since the latency period of mesothelioma and other asbestos diseases ranges from 10 – 50 years, some Navy veterans are only just being diagnosed with the disease today, decades after initial exposure. There are hundreds of ships that still have asbestos in their structure, and although most of them have been retired, shipyard workers and veterans may still be at risk of developing the disease if proper safety precautions aren’t in practice.
Protecting Navy Veterans from Asbestos Exposure
Navy veterans and shipyard workers are among those with the highest risk of developing mesothelioma as a result of extended service-related asbestos exposure, and agencies have worked to lower the risk with proper protocols through various laws and regulations. In 1979, the Navy implemented the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) National Emphasis Program on Shipbreaking in order to remove asbestos from high-maintenance areas and mitigate exposure risks and protect workers from the dangers of asbestos. As part of the program, the administration mandated inspections and other practices to limit hazards like asbestos in shipyards. OSHA conducts joint inspections with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), where the primary focus is on identifying asbestos products and other environmental contaminants and ensuring occupational safety measures are being taken.
The Asbestos Medical Surveillance Program (AMSP) also works to protect employees of all branches of the military. The program maintains records of service members in the military, as well as civilian workers, who have suffered occupational asbestos exposure. Doctors conduct chest X-rays and perform lung tests like spirometry to monitor the health of those who were exposed to asbestos in the military. This program aims to detect mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases early on, since early detection is the best way to improve prognosis.
Author: Tara Strand
Senior Content WriterRead about Tara
Reviewer: Jennifer R. Lucarelli
Lawyer for Mesothelioma Victims and Their FamiliesRead about Jennifer
Franke K. Government and Navy knowledge regarding health hazards of asbestos: A state of the science evaluation (1900 to 1970). International Forum for Respiratory Research. 23:sup3, 1-20. doi: 10.3109/08958378.2011.643417
Occupational Safety and Health Administration. OSHA's National Emphasis Program (NEP) on Shipbreaking.
Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center. ABOUT THE NAVY ASBESTOS MEDICAL SURVEILLANCE PROGRAM (AMSP).
U.S. Government Accountability Office. Navy Efforts To Protect Workers From Asbestos Exposure.