Mesothelioma Shipyard Workers

Quick Summary

Shipyard workers are especially at risk for mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases. This is due to the insulation used to build ships and submarines from World War II and the Korean War that were often made with asbestos.

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Mesothelioma and Shipyard Workers Explained

Asbestos was previously considered to be superior to other forms of insulation. It was lightweight and fire resistant, so it was mandated to be used particularly in the military where ships and submarines were made by servicemen who unknowingly were exposed to asbestos.

Exposure to asbestos didn’t cause an asbestos-related disease right away and it wasn’t until several decades later that shipyard workers began to complain of a cough, chest pains, shortness of breath and wheezing. This eventually led to a diagnosis of asbestosis, asbestos-related lung cancer and mesothelioma cancer. Smokers who were also shipyard workers were especially at risk for developing asbestos-related lung cancer.

There were dozens of shipyards throughout the United States where asbestos was used as part of the shipbuilding process. If you worked at a shipyard and believe you were exposed to insulation made from asbestos, you should research your former company to see if your shipyard was one that used asbestos in the building of ships and submarines.

The shipyard worker at the highest risk for an asbestos-related illness was an asbestos insulator. Fortunately, only about 1 out of every 500 shipyard workers had this in their job description. Other shipyard jobs that required exposure to asbestos were painters, boilermakers, ship fitters, pipefitters, machinists and electricians—all of whom used some type of asbestos-containing product as part of their job in the shipyard.

Because of the physical and chemical properties of asbestos, it made for an ideal substance to be used in the making of ships and submarines. Asbestos is corrosion-resistant and fire retardant so it was believed to be ideal in the making of ships. It was incorporated as part of the insulation of incinerators, steam pipes, hot water pipes and boilers. Asbestos was used in areas of the ship that weren’t very well ventilated so that workers often inhaled or ingested large amounts of asbestos, even if they didn’t directly work with the substance as part of their job.

Asbestos-containing products began to be used in the shipbuilding industry as early as the 1940s; however, even though it was known to be toxic as early as the 1930s, it was still used by shipbuilders up until the late 1970s. At this time, more and more people in the shipbuilding industry were found to have diseases that could only have been dated back to their time as workers in the shipbuilding industry. There appeared to be a decades-long lag time between the exposure to asbestos and the development of mesothelioma or other asbestos-related illness.

It wasn’t until the late 1960s and early 1970s that the U.S. government began to take the risks of exposure to asbestos seriously. It was then ordered that all asbestos insulation be removed from ships. Even though that was decades ago, some ships have not been outfitted with asbestos-free insulation. Those involved in the removal of asbestos-containing insulation are at risk for developing mesothelioma or other asbestos-related illness unless they used specially-designed respirator protective equipment.

U.S. Workers Exposure to Asbestos

During the years of World War II (1940-1945), about 4.5 million people in the shipyard industry were exposed to large amounts of asbestos as part of their duty in the industry. About one in five hundred workers was an asbestos insulator, who inhaled asbestos on a regular basis as part of their job insulating ships and submarines. Other workers, even those not directly related to the making of insulation, were exposed to asbestos because they worked in tight-fitting spaces that weren’t well ventilated and contained high concentrations of asbestos.

After World War II ended, there was a decline in the number of shipyard workers, from 1.7 million workers in 1943 to about 200,000 workers in the years following the war. From 1946 to about 1970, shipbuilding continued at this rate and asbestos was used as part of the shipbuilding process throughout these years.

Asbestos was used by the U.S. Navy prior to World War II. In fact, it was mandated in 1922 that all new submarines made in the shipbuilding industry be insulated with asbestos-containing insulation. Chrysotile asbestos was used in gaskets, packing, tape and insulation on ships and submarines, while the amosite asbestos type was primarily used for insulating ships and submarines.

About 197 million pounds of asbestos was being used by the shipyard industry in the early 1930s. This number escalated to about 633 million pounds of asbestos used by 1937. The demand for asbestos in the shipbuilding industry was especially high during the war to the degree that Miners couldn’t keep up with the demand for the substance.

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California Shipyards

California is home to the first dry dock on the U.S. Pacific Coast and is the third-longest coastline in America. For this reason, many California shipyards existed and all of them used asbestos at one time or another as part of the shipbuilding process.

California also happened to be home to many natural deposits of asbestos. The asbestos was mined by asbestos Miners and was made into products used by the California shipbuilding industry at numerous shipyards along the pacific coast. Because of the number of shipyard workers in California who were exposed to asbestos as part of their jobs, the U.S. became the largest country in which mesothelioma and other asbestos-related illnesses was found.

If you worked at a California shipyard, you were likely unknowingly exposed to asbestos as part of your job.

Some of these dangerous California shipyards include:

  • The Moore Dry Dock
  • Hunters Point Naval Shipyard
  • General Dynamics
  • Consolidated Steel Shipyard
  • California Naval Shipyard
  • Long Beach Naval Shipyard
  • San Francisco Dry Dock
  • San Diego Naval Shipyard
  • The Moore Dry Dock

New York Shipyards

In 1801, the first New York shipyard was established and was simply named the New York Naval Shipyard. It was the home to the making of several famous ships and submarines and also used asbestos as part of the making of these vessels.

Asbestos began to be used by this shipyard and other shipyards in the New York area in the mid-1920s and this continued until the 1970s, when asbestos was found to be toxic and related to the development of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related illnesses.

If you worked at a New York Shipyard between 1930 and 1970, you were likely exposed to asbestos and need to watch out for asbestos-related symptoms that usually manifest themselves decades after the exposure to asbestos as part of the shipbuilding process.

Veterans Support Team
Christopher Dryfoos PhotoWritten by:

Contributing Author

Christopher Dryfoos is a journalist and member of the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA). As the grandson of the U.S. Navy’s first forensic pathologist, he aims to help veterans with mesothelioma access needed care.

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