The Navy has made efforts to minimize the impact of asbestos on its ships, but some military vessels still contain asbestos in a controlled state. Experts agree that asbestos is only a threat when friable and airborne, which means these ships should not put sailors’ health in jeopardy. However, many veterans have been exposed to asbestos throughout their careers.
Asbestos Use Peaked in World War II
The U.S. Navy shipbuilding program expanded significantly during World War II as America prepared for ongoing conflict with the axis nations. Nobody knew when the war would end, and ensuring the military was equipped with ships became a high priority.
Asbestos was a coveted material during this expansion. Asbestos was considered a miracle material because it was ideal for soundproofing, fireproofing, and insulating. Best of all, it was relatively inexpensive.
All of these qualities made asbestos a perfect material for shipbuilding, and the federal government stockpiled it for fear that it would run out.
After World War II, the Navy had accrued such a high volume of asbestos and ACM that it continued to make it a mainstay in its shipbuilding program. Asbestos was used in every ship built after the war until 1973 when the undeniable health consequences of asbestos exposure led to a change in shipbuilding specifications.
After 1973, only asbestos-free thermal insulation products were allowed in new ship construction.
Navy Began Asbestos Replacement in 1975
Unfortunately, the new era without asbestos was slow to roll out. According to a document written by the Comptroller General, the Navy officially issued an asbestos replacement policy in October 1975.
However, the Navy had already ordered a bunch of asbestos-containing parts for new ship builds and upgrades, and the new policies did not overrule this decision.
Several ships that were under construction, or slated for construction, were built with asbestos as late as 1978.
In January 1979, the Navy communicated its plan for removing and replacing asbestos that may put military personnel at risk.
According to the document:
“The Navy’s October 1975 policy was to remove and replace with nonasbestos materials only insulation that was damaged or had to be removed to accomplish necessary repairs…The Navy estimated that, during the next 5 years, implementation of this policy should result in the removal and replacement of all shipboard thermal asbestos insulation except the 30 to 50 percent which normally remains untouched, except for minor maintenance, during the life of a ship. In addition, there are a few shipboard applications for which no acceptable substitute asbestos-free materials have been identified.”
Ultimately, the Navy opted for a policy that would minimize personnel’s contact with asbestos without entirely removing it.
The Navy’s Current Asbestos Control Policy
That policy has remained relatively unchanged to this day. While no new ships contain asbestos, existing ships that contain asbestos are controlled rather than abated.
The Navy’s programs must demonstrate that steps are being taken to minimize exposure wherever asbestos is still installed in ships. The Navy must also comply with numerous asbestos control policies, including local or state policies and federal regulations.
In many cases, state or local agencies enforce the Federal requirements and may implement additional stringent requirements.
When ships travel to other countries, they are expected to abide by their host country’s regulations too. As a result of numerous regulatory bodies overseeing and controlling the use of asbestos, some ships may still need to be fully abated even if the Navy deems it unnecessary.
Widespread Asbestos in Navy Ships
There was prolific use of asbestos in Navy ships and other U.S. military assets, which makes it difficult and expensive to remove.
In 1979, it was estimated that a full asbestos abatement program for Navy ships would cost $2 Billion.
With inflation, that same program would cost approximately $7 Billion today, and the military is not willing to afford the expense.
The Navy does have the policy to inform personnel, in writing, if they have been exposed to asbestos. This policy helps ensure that veterans are aware of potential health problems and can get screened for mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases.
Help for Veterans With Mesothelioma
If you served your country as a member of the U.S. Navy, it’s highly likely you were exposed to asbestos in Navy ships. Veterans who worked on ships during or after World War II — and those who have recently worked on older vessels — are at risk of developing mesothelioma.
It’s critical that you are screened regularly and get in touch with your local VA Environmental Health Coordinator about your exposure concerns.
If you have since developed mesothelioma, you may be eligible for VA benefits that will give you access to medical care, including top mesothelioma specialists working in the VA health care system at VA hospitals. Contact Mesothelioma Veterans Center, a VA-Accredited Claims Agent, for help with your claim.